In an act of frustration, the Fiduciary Institute of Southern Africa (FISA) recently issued a press release raising concerns about delays in winding-up estates.
FISA called on all banks “to investigate why it takes months to provide basic information to Executors to administer deceased estates.”
If this is the level of frustration experienced by professionals, imagine how great the challenges are facing smaller estates, where family members are acting as executors themselves.
According to Reana Steyn, Ombudsman for Banking Services, between 2021 and 2022 the Ombud has seen a noticeable increase of 67% in complaints relating to the administration of deceased estate accounts.
“The issues raised vary and there could be other types of issues at play, but bank delays is certainly one of them,” says Steyn.
Prior to Covid, banks would provide the necessary documentation to wind up an estate within two weeks. That process is now taking months.
Added to the frustration is that, according to Ian Brink, Chairperson of FISA, “the various banks have different procedures which they also sometimes change without consultation, leading to internal confusion among bank staff, as well as huge frustration to FISA members.”
As Angelique Visser, FISA National Councillor explains, delays in closing accounts and paying out the proceeds into the estate can leave families without cashflow to pay basic bills.
Delays in providing a certificate of balance (COB) affects the ability of the executor to wind up the estate and to calculate estate duty.
“There unfortunately seems to be a lack of responsibility on the part of most banks to provide an acceptable level of client service to the Executors and heirs of their clients who held bank accounts and have passed on, some of whom may have banked with the institution for decades,” says Visser.
Lauren Hean of Appleton Fiduciary Services says that prior to the pandemic, the average turnaround time from the banks was around 21 days, yet now, for some banks the standard turnaround period is 90 days.
She cites a case where it took a bank a month to respond to her email and only then did the 90 days turnaround start. “They just pass the buck. No one has the courtesy to respond to my last email.”
The banks, it seems, are facing a crisis. They cite numerous issues including a backlog from the Covid lockdown, continuing higher death rates, increases in fraud, the cyberattack on the Department of Justice last year, and problems with accessing the Master’s Portal to verify letters of executorship.
Banks urgently need to increase their staff numbers to deal with the backlog and higher volume.
According to a statement from the Banking Association of South Africa (BASA), high volumes since the Covid pandemic have resulted in banks having a backlog of Letters of Executorship and Letters of Authority.
“Banks have arranged for staff to work overtime and equipped them with resources to be able to operate from home, among other measures, to deal with the backlog.”
BASA has also raised the issue of the instability of the Master’s Office online portal. This delays the confirmation of appointment letters and subsequent payouts and the closure of deceased accounts, which exacerbates any backlogs.
“Banks experience delays in receiving confirmation of appointment from the Master’s Office; and templates on the portal do not align to the usual appointment letter template, which often results in the customer having to go back to the Master’s Office for additional confirmations to support the validation process. This has been raised by BASA with the Master’s Office with a view to collaborating to find a solution.”
Effect of fraud on winding-up estates
Fraud has increased significantly in relation to deceased estates with fake letters of executorship being presented.
BASA says as a result enhanced verification and control measures must be followed by banks, which may lead to increased processing times. “These controls are required by regulation and market conduct standards, as banks have a legal obligation to safeguard the client’s assets until transfer has been done to the estate.”
Nedbank says that it has “taken proactive steps to manage the delays which are primarily due to outages on the Masters Portal and the dependency on external parties for the submission of the prerequisite documentation, all of which are compounded by large volumes currently being experienced.”
Aneesa Razack, CEO of FNB Fiduciary says FNB is actively involved in efforts to ensure that deceased estates are administered in the best interests of beneficiaries, families, and loved ones.
“We recognise that, over the period of Covid-19, industry processes for winding-up estates have been negatively impacted. This is due in part to a rise in excess deaths, increased fraud, and administrative hurdles that are frequently beyond the control of executors and/or banks.”
One of the solutions is to assist the Master with digitisation. Razack says that “through collaboration with the Banking Association of South Africaand the Chief Master’s Office, FNB is part of efforts to address the current challenges and minimise the adverse impact on beneficiaries and their families.”
Razack also confirmed that the bank is increasing its capacity to help clients and working to improve the processing of smaller estates using data-driven digital platforms. “We believe that these measures will help to shorten the time it takes for winding-up estates.”
This article first appeared in City Press.