INTESTATE SUCCESSION AND THE SURVIVOR OF AN UNFORMALISED SAME-SEX CONJUGAL RELATIONSHIP: Laubscher No v Duplan 2017 (2) SA 264 (CC)
Keywords:right to inherit, intestacy, monogamous permanent same-sex partnership, reading-in order, substantive equality
When a person dies intestate his or her heirs are determined by the provisions of section 1(1) and (2) of the Intestate Succession Act 81 of 1987. Included amongst the heirs is the deceased’s surviving spouse, who either takes the entire estate or shares it with the deceased’s descendants (if any). Historically, the reference to “spouse” in the Act was taken to mean a person to whom the deceased was married in terms of the Marriage Act 25 of 1961. Accordingly, persons who were married to the deceased merely by religious rites and persons with whom the deceased was in a long-term conjugal relationship that was unformalised by marriage were excluded.
The advent of constitutional democracy in South Africa resulted in a number of challenges to this status quo through reliance on the equality clause of the Bill of Rights. As a result of these challenges it has now been recognised that the survivor of a Hindu marriage, a monogamous Muslim marriage, and a polygynous Muslim marriage all have the right to inherit on intestacy as a “spouse”. Furthermore, in a groundbreaking decision in Gory v Kolver NO (Starke and others intervening) (2007 (4) SA 97 (CC)) the Constitutional Court recognised that the exclusion of the surviving partner of a gay or lesbian relationship from the right to inherit on intestacy was unconstitutional, and directed that the relevant sections of the Intestate Succession Act be amended by a reading-in of additional words to remedy the unconstitutionality. These words conferred the right to inherit on intestacy on the survivor of a monogamous permanent same-sex partnership in which the partners undertook reciprocal duties of support. At the time of writing no survivor of an unformalised opposite-sex relationship has challenged his or her exclusion from intestate succession. Possibly this reticence has been influenced by the decision in Volks NO v Robinson (2005 (5) BCLR 446 (CC)) (hereinafter “Volks”). In Volks the Constitutional Court held that it is not unconstitutional for the Maintenance of Surviving Spouses Act 27 of 1990 to distinguish between married and unmarried persons by giving the survivor of a marriage a claim for reasonable maintenance against the estate of the deceased spouse but not giving a similar claim to the survivor of a relationship in which the parties did not marry.
Paleker has raised the question whether the Gory order “must still be applied in light of the Civil Union Act” but he comes to no firm conclusion, and states tentatively that “if marriage … is a precondition for inheriting, persons in same-sex unions who have not solemnised their relationship after the coming into force of the Civil Union Act … may be precluded from inheriting intestate from each other”. On the other hand De Waal and Schoeman-Malan are clearly of the view that the order in the Gory case still operates and – whilst regarding the current position as “anomalous” – they state that it “will probably continue until the Domestic Partnerships Bill [GN36 in GG 30663 of 2008-1-14] eventually does become law”. This has also been the interpretation accepted by the Master’s office acting on advice from the Senior State Law Advisor. The different treatment accorded same-sex couples by the continued retention of the benefits conferred by Gory has been defended on the grounds of substantive equality, since many practical obstacles still stand in the way of same-sex couples formalising their relationships.
The question of the continued applicability of the reading-in order in Gory has now come before the Constitutional Court in Laubscher NO v Duplan (2017 (2) SA 264 (CC)) and it is this case which is the focus of this note.
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