Answer to a question from a reader

What is a letter of authority and how can I get one?

The short answer

The Master of the High Court issues a letter of authority to whoever was nominated to administer a deceased's estate.

The whole question

Dear Athalie

My two sisters tried to get a letter of authority to access our mother's bank account while she's sick in hospital without our knowledge. Is it legal, and will they be able to get this letter while she's still alive? In the event my mother passes on, who has the right to have the letter of authority? 

How does a letter of authority work?

The long answer

A letter of authority can only be obtained from the Master of the High Court when a person has died and the death has been reported. In that case, you and your siblings must agree on whom to nominate to represent you and receive the letter of authority. Any one of you can be nominated, or someone else that you all trust. The letter of authority gives the nominated representative the right and duty to administer your mother’s estate. That means, paying all the debts and seeing that all the rightful heirs are identified to distribute the assets fairly and correctly. Having the letter of authority does not give the representative the right to enjoy the benefits of the estate personally.

The letter of authority (J170) must be obtained from the Office of the Master of the High Court or a Magistrates Court and can take up to 120 days to be issued. It is usually valid for up to 12 months. The person who is nominated to be the representative receives the letter of authority in terms of Section 18(3) of the Administration of Estates Act. 

The following reporting documents are required (these forms are available online at

  • Completed death notice (form J294)

  • Original or certified copy of the death certificate

  • Original or certified copy of a marriage certificate (if applicable)

  • All original wills or documents intended as such (if any)

  • Next-of-kin affidavit if the deceased did not leave a valid will (form J192)

  • Completed inventory form (form J243)

  • List of creditors of deceased (if applicable)

  • Nominations by the heirs for the appointment of a Master’s representative in the case of an intestate estate or where no executor has been nominated in the will or the nominated executor declines the appointment.

  • Undertaking and acceptance of Master’s directions (form J155)

  • Declaration confirming that the estate has not already been reported to another Master’s Office or Magistrates Court.

When a person dies, their bank accounts are frozen to prevent theft and fraud. The representative must open a new bank account in the name of “Estate of Late Mrs X” so that your mother’s bank account is closed and the bank must transfer the money to the new “Estate Late Mrs X” bank account. The representative will need to provide the bank with the following documents:

  • Death Certificate

  • Deceased’s ID

  • Letter of authority or Letter of executorship

  • Appointed representative’s or executor’s ID

You can contact Legal Aid to ask for further advice here:  It is a means-tested government organisation that must help people who can’t afford a lawyer:

Legal Aid Advice Line (Toll-free): 0800 110 110

Legal Aid Ethics Hotline: 0800 153 728

Please-Call-Me number: 079 835 7179

Wishing you the best,

Answered on July 22, 2021, 11:24 a.m.

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Please note. We are not lawyers or financial advisors. We do our best to make the answers accurate, but we cannot accept any legal liability if there are errors.