15 Sep 2020 – Media Statement: Victory for opposite-sex life partners as court recognizes their right to inherit from each other

Media Statement 

15 September 2020

Victory for opposite-sex life partners as court recognizes their right to inherit from each other

The Western Cape High Court handed down its judgment in the matter of Bwanya v The Master of the
High Court & Others yesterday. The matter concerned the recognition of opposite-sex life partnerships
for the purposes of intestate succession and maintenance of surviving spouses. The LRC represented
the Commission for Gender Equality (CGE) as amicus curiae in the matter.

The Applicant in this matter was in a permanent opposite-sex life partnership and her partner died
without a will. In terms of the Intestate Succession Act 81 of 1987 (ISA) and the Maintenance of
Surviving Spouses Act 27 of 1990 (MSSA), opposite-sex life partners, like the Applicant, could not
inherit and/or claim maintenance respectively as they were not considered spouses in terms of these

As a result, the Applicant filed an application challenging the constitutionality of both the ISA and the
MSSA for failing to recognize and include heterosexual life partners who have undertaken reciprocal
duties of support as spouses for the benefit of inheritance and maintenance respectively.

The LRC welcomes yesterday’s judgment, in which the Court declared that section 1(1) of the ISA is
unconstitutional and invalid insofar as it excludes the surviving life partner in a permanent
heterosexual life partnership from inheritance. The Court held that the ISA is to be read as though the
following words appear after the word spouse, “or a partner in a permanent opposite life partnership in
which the partners had undertaken reciprocal duties of support.” In relation to the MSSA, the Court
held that the finding by the Constitutional Court in the Volks vs Robinson judgment was binding on the
court as a lower court so it could not make a finding in favor of the applicant in this regard. The
declaration of invalidity will have to be referred to the Constitutional Court for confirmation.

We welcome also the declaration of invalidity in relation to the ISA as it is an important development
of the South African jurisprudence on the rights of opposite-sex permanent life partnerships. Often
women in such relationships are vulnerable and suffer discrimination when the relationship is
terminated by death. The decision is therefore a welcome development in advancing the rights of
women to equality and dignity specifically in relationships.

Issued by the Legal Resources Centre
Media enquiries:
Cell: 068 584 2442 / Email: thabo@lrc.org.za