In the past weeks, two deeply sad SA celebrity stories have brought to light the implications of inadequate legal preparation for surviving partners of a spouse who passes away.
After the tragic death of hip hop star Jabulani “HHP” Tsambo last month, his wife found herself embroiled in a high court dispute over the recognition of the couple’s customary marriage.
Meanwhile, Afrikaans singer Amor Vittone made waves across social media and the news when it was announced that her estranged husband, rugby player Joost van der Westhuizen, had left her only a TV set in a revised will signed shortly before his death.
So, who’s responsible for ensuring that a bereaved wife is adequately covered when her partner passes away?
‘Lacking in respect and compassion’
Amor Vittone’s challenge to Joost van der Westhuizen’s updated will has been viewed largely in emotional terms: his choice to leave his ex-wife a TV and nothing else ignited a storm of controversy on Twitter as many saw it as an extremely petty act, saying that it would have been better to leave her nothing at all rather than a paltry piece of electronics.
The judge in the Amor Vittone case highlighted the other side of the emotional coin: that it seemed heartless for a woman to be dragging up the details of Van der Westhuizen’s illness in order to contest his will, and that her actions were “lacking in respect and compassion”.
But viewing the story in strictly legal terms, the dispute comes down to Vittone’s claim that Van der Westhuizen would have been – as a result of his advanced motor neuron disease – unable to hold a pen to sign a new will in 2015.
If this will was indeed found to be invalid, she would stand in better stead as the law would revert to an earlier will, signed in 2009, which named her as Van der Westhuizen’s only heir.
In some ways, the case of HHP’s wife Lerato Sengadi is easier to understand, as it doesn’t rest on the rememberings of those involved, but that doesn’t make it any less messy.
The Tsambo family has refused to acknowledge Sengadi as HHP’s spouse, challenging a judge’s ruling that under customary law she was indeed married to him.
In their view, the correct processes that constitute a customary marriage were not followed, and this has all kinds of implications for Sengadi: her husband has been buried near to his family homestead in Mahikeng despite her contention that he wished to be laid to rest in Joburg, and she was not allowed by her husband’s family to be involved in the funeral arrangements.
In addition to the heartache that these happenings have surely caused her after her husband’s apparent battle with addiction and death by suicide, Sengadi now stands to find herself without the financial provisions that would rightfully be hers as Tsambo’s wife.
READ MORE: Customary law – know your rights
Planning for the worst
Discussing death can be awkward and even scary, but if you don’t know, ask – whether that means a tough talk with your spouse, a session with a lawyer whose knowledge could help your planning process, or a conversation with older kids about what would happen if you weren’t around to take care of them.
Those life insurance ads have a point: it’s never too early to prepare for the inevitable, however morbid that can seem, because a marriage needn’t go awry for legal complications and loopholes to arise.
Having your will in order, taking nothing for granted, and being transparent with your family about what provisions you’ve made for them and expect to be made for you should be treated with as essential admin.
After all, if you can read through the fine print of a cellphone contract, sign on the dotted line of a leave agreement, or opt in to a high-speed wifi connection in your home, you can definitely take the time to ensure that you’re covered, whatever happens.
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