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Can you inherit from someone you have merely been living with?

In South Africa, the number of couples who are permanently living together in life partnerships is increasing every year. What are the consequences that would ensue if either of the partners in the relationship dies without a will? Should a surviving partner in such a scenario have a claim for inheritance or maintenance from the deceased estate? If yes, under what circumstances would a claim be allowed? The answer to these questions will be explored in light of the Bwanya v Master of the High Court, Cape Town and Others case.

The facts of the Bwanya case were as follows: Ms Bwanya and Mr Ruch entered into a romantic relationship in 2014. They grew so intimate that they moved in together as well. The couple’s friends all knew about their relationship, and Mr Ruch even introduced Ms Bwanya to his friends as his wife. The romantic relationship they had, comprised all the characteristics of a marriage. For example, Mr Ruch bought all the groceries, and household necessities and also provided for the household expenses. Ms Bwanya provided him with love, care, support, and companionship.

In addition, the couple also made future plans together. For example, Mr Ruch has been helping Ms Bwanya obtain her license. The deceased had also planned to buy her a car, as the couple planned to start a cleaning business together. The two also had plans to cement their relationship with a baby. In 2015, the pair got engaged. The couple planned a trip to Zimbabwe for lobola negotiations to commence. Mr Ruch also planned on selling one of his properties in preparation. Sadly, two months before the trip to Zimbabwe, Mr Ruch passed away. He had nominated his mother in his will who had already predeceased him. Thus, he died intestate.

Ms Bwanya, after the death of her life partner lodged a two-fold claim against the deceased estate. Firstly, to inherit under the Intestate Succession Act, and secondly, to claim maintenance under the Maintenance of Surviving Spouses Act. The basis of the claim was that the relationship between the two, was akin to a marriage and that the parties had undertaken reciprocal duties of support.

The Constitutional Court in its judgement, held that permanent life partnerships must be accorded the necessary respect in our society as they are one of life’s realities. Furthermore, the court declared that the relevant legislative provisions constitute unfair discrimination and are constitutionally invalid. On this basis, the court held that when the term “spouse” is used in the provisions, it must include: “a surviving partner of a permanent life partnership terminated by the death of one partner in which the partners undertook reciprocal duties of support and in circumstances where the surviving partner has not received an equitable share in the deceased partner’s estate”.

The effect of this judgement is that a surviving partner in a permanent life partnership will be able to claim for maintenance and inheritance. However, it must be emphasised, that this legal entitlement of a surviving life partner does not flow from the mere act of living together permanently as a couple. Permanent life partners do not obtain a right to inherit or claim from a deceased estate by the operation of law. The court qualified the claim by stating that a surviving partner can only claim where the parties had undertaken reciprocal duties of support.

The court gave a guideline as to what can be considered to determine whether or not there is a reciprocal duty of support between life partners. A reciprocal duty of support between life partners may entail the following: “…such as loyalty and sympathetic care and affection, concern…as well as the more material needs of life, such as physical care, financial support, the rendering of services in the running of the common household or a support-generating business…To my mind, these features are not foreign to permanent life partnerships….In all these respects, permanent life partnerships are very much akin to marriages.”

In conclusion, it is clear from this judgement that a surviving life partner is not left without a claim when their life partner has predeceased them. However, this claim is not guaranteed because the claim does not flow from the mere fact of living together. The court carefully set out the circumstances under which the claim would possibly be allowed.

Reference List:
1. Bwanya v Master of the High Court, Cape Town and Others 2022 (3) SA 250 (CC).

Marriages on the decline in South Africa (02-10-2023) <>

While every reasonable effort is taken to ensure the accuracy and soundness of the contents of this publication, neither the writers of the articles nor the publisher will bear any responsibility for the consequences of any actions based on information or recommendations contained herein. Our material is for informational purposes.

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