Monday, 28 February 2022


POOR planning and non-disclosure of children born out of wedlock have complicated most estates of late prominent figures, including top politicians and businesspeople, as the Master of High Court battles to clear over 500 high profile inheritance files.

Such cases, according to the Master’s Office, are the most problematic as they involve a number of assets and cash and some of the figures are viewed as breadwinners by many in their respective extended families.

More often than not, the deceased estates of high profile figures in Zimbabwe take inordinately long to wind up because of internecine fights among beneficiaries and relatives.

High profile figures in this context are those members of our society who have made names for themselves in various fields of endeavour; from politics, music, sports, through to business, industry and even the professions.

Over the years, the media has been awash with inheritance disputes pitting families of late Cabinet ministers, national heroes, prominent businesspeople, politicians, artistes and socialites.

The major challenge, legal experts say, is the fact that some of those prominent figures have children born out of wedlock and other wives, but they keep it a secret and neither do they write responsible wills.

In most cases, children born out of wedlock and other wives pitch up during the funeral and misunderstandings ensue.

The legal wife would be in a state of denial and cannot simply accommodate the “new additions”.

This normally creates divisions among the deceased’s relatives as some will claim to know about the existence of these children, while others stand by the legitimate wives and claim to be “in the dark”.

Most of the time, high profile figures are breadwinners for the whole clan, not just their immediate family.

They act as the umbrella or shield for the entire extended family. Their deaths result in the extended family losing that shield and all the support it came with.

This then causes members of the extended family to jostle to get whatever they can out of the estate to use to start life without the support of the now deceased.

The Master of High Court, Mr Eldard Mutasa, confirmed the challenge, saying his office was overwhelmed with long-drawn out high profile estates.

“Currently, we have over 500 high profile files saddled with disputes and this is largely as a result of poor estate planning,” he said.

“Generally, there is reluctance to write wills or formation of trusts. This goes a long way in ensuring a proper and usually peaceful distribution of one’s estate upon his or her death.

“There are, however, some who may write irresponsible wills which award assets to undeserving people. Such wills are usually written when one is over-excited or with a view to “punish” a potential beneficiary for unclear reasons.”

Mr Mutasa said some disputes were complicated by the involvement of some influential friends and relatives who try to interfere with the Master’s Office.

“To make matters worse, there could be some influential family members who believe that a moral position takes precedence over a legal position,” he said. “Because of their influence, they mislead some beneficiaries into giving prominence to a moral position over a legal one.

“For instance, they can declare that women who were married by the deceased should all be recognised as surviving spouses, notwithstanding that the deceased’s first marriage was a monogamous marriage.

“So, when these people approach the office of the Master, their minds will be holding a position which they strongly believe as the correct position.

“Any ruling by the Master or executor which goes against a position that they believe as correct would result in numerous allegations of favouritism, bias or corruption.

“Instead of taking the Master’s decision on review through court process, some beneficiaries go shopping for influential people in the vain hope of reversing decisions made by the Master.”

In some cases, there can even be some women who claim to have been privately married to the deceased who would wish to be recognised as “legal wives’’.

Such a scenario creates a headache not only for the family or relatives, but even for the executor and the office of the Master of the High Court which has the mandate to superintend the administration of all deceased estates in Zimbabwe.

The office of the Master of High Court and the executor will now be expected to assist in the resolution of these disputes.

In some cases, the Master’s Office will try and resolve a dispute involving a family with two or three camps, all expecting a favourable outcome.

Legal expert Advocate Joshua Chirambwi said disputes in high profile estates arose out of greed and he urged the living to properly plan for their families.

“Those estates have disputes mainly because of greed and malice punctuated by moral turpitude,” he said.

“Most high profile people fail to realise the need for proper estate plans done by experts.

“It is only that they cannot speak in their graves, but it cannot be gainsayed that they would be turning in their graves at the point where their estates develop real disputes.

“The living should be responsible for what happens after they die, it is their duty to safeguard children and spouses from disputation. The time is come for the nation to see this.”

Another lawyer who handles inheritance cases, Mr Vunganayi Chiwore, said failure by the rich to disclose all their assets and business interests to families also complicated their estates.

“Many high profile people want to keep their affairs very private such that they believe registration of their assets may unduly expose them, especially politicians,” he said. “Some high profile people have irregularly obtained wealth which they want to keep a secret. Once they die, it is those secretive assets which haunt them.”

Mr Chiwore also cited greediness as a cause for complications in the estates.

“Many wealthy people have more than one family and those family disputes play out during administration of their estates,” he said.

“Where there are internal family disputes, things like greediness come to the fore easily.

“Then credit is a huge issue. You see a high profile person wth a lot of assets during his lifetime, but when he passes on, it turns out he had equally more creditors and the beneficiaries may not be comfortable with it.”

Mr Chiwore said the wealthy usually take care of extended families during their lifetime and such beneficiaries may also cause problems in inheritance cases.

“I recently handled the estate of a powerful man, whose estate was huge, but only had two beneficiaries, his children,” he said.

“During the life of this man, he, on a monthly basis, provided salaries and groceries for 60 relatives and for all of them to understand the estate cannot pay them as was before because its not provided for, it became a huge challenge which sparked a dispute.”

Former Deputy Master of High Court  Mr Reuben Mukavhi, who is now in private practice, said most high profile estate cases drag for years due to disputes.

He called for proper estate planning to avoid disputes.

“The most important thing for any person who has some wealth is to prescribe how that wealth should be distributed in the event of his or her death,” he said. “It is called wealth planning.

“Several approaches lend themselves for use. A person can write a will, prescribing how the estate should be distributed upon their death. A will is like the person speaking from the grave about who gets what form the estate.

“The advantage of a will is that it only takes effect upon the death of the testator, which means that it can be changed as many times as the testator wishes. The testator can cater for any and all the people he/she wants to get a share from the estate. The distribution will be in black and white, so to speak.

“Another approach is to set up a trust. A trust can be set up during the lifetime of the founder, or upon his/her death through a will. Whichever way, the advantage of the trust is that it takes away legal title over the assets and vests it in trustees who then manage the assets for the benefit of beneficiaries.

“The beneficiaries will not fight for the assets because the assets would be outside of the deceased estate, having been transferred to the trust. The advantage of the trust is that the founder stipulates the beneficiaries of the trust and the formula for the distribution of the benefits. This again allows the founder to cater for all and any people he/she wants to benefit.”

Mr Mukavhi added: “Companies are another good way of wealth planning. A company is a juristic person that has an existence of its own separate from the owners. The assets of the company belong to the company, not to the owners of the company.

“If the company is properly run, with good corporate governance structures, then it can be a very good tool for wealth planning. The beneficiaries of the estate will inherit shares in the company, but not the individual assets in the company.

“Their benefits will come in the form of dividends when the company makes profits. The advantage of companies is that it shields the assets from the beneficiaries, thereby preserving them so that they continue generating income for the beneficiaries.

“However, it should be noted that the fact that there will now be more than one shareholder in the place of the deceased is fertile ground for shareholder disputes, which inevitably will spill to the boardroom and to the business in general.”

There is, therefore, need for more awareness programmes on inheritance laws as inheritance matters affect everyone. Herald


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