Family feud over ‘men-only’ will
Five sisters want their sons to be able to inherit land which has been awarded to their male cousins
IT SOUNDS like the plot of a gripping book or a thrilling TV series: valuable land in the Little Karoo in the Western Cape, cousins who grew up together but no longer speak to each other, and a grandfather who rules with an iron will from the grave. Yet this happens to be the true life drama which recently played out in the high court in Cape Town. When Carel Johannes Cornelis de Jager and his wife, Catharine Dorothea, drew up their final will and testament in November 1902 they couldn’t have dreamt that three generations later it would divide their family.
Carel, a successful farmer from Oudtshoorn, stipulated that when he died his farms at the foot of the Swartberg mountains were to be divided between his four sons and two daughters.
But determined to ensure his extensive land remained in the control of blood family, he added a clause that’s now proving to be the source of much heartache for his great-grandchildren. He dictated that after his children died the land could be left only to male descendants, meaning girls born into the family would get nothing.
When his grandson Kalvyn de Jager died in 2015 – after years of farming the land – with no male heirs, Kalvyn’s five daughters – Surina Serfontein (66), Elna Slabber (62), Trudene Forword (58), Kalene Roux (55) and Annelie Jordaan (52) – were upset at the prospect of losing the property.
Desperate to keep it in their branch of the family, they went to court and challenged their great-grandfather’s will on the grounds that it’s discriminatory, and asked that the land be allowed to pass down to their male children.
But their three cousins – brothers Albertus (70), Arnoldus (67) and Johan de Jager (68) – opposed their legal action. They say the will spells out that Kalvyn’s land should be transferred to them.
Although many saw the will as unfair and discriminatory, Judge Lee Bozalek’s hands were tied. He ruled the will could not be contested.
The law states that for a court to set a will aside on the grounds that it’s discriminatory, it must be clear that it “offends against public policy”. Bozalek explained that while preventing females from inheriting may be discriminatory, this is a private will and not a law that prevents women in general from inheriting property. If a court were able to “rewrite” private wills that were discriminatory it would open a “Pandora’s box of litigation”, he added.
So the will stands, meaning Kalvyn’s land is divided among his three nephews while his daughters get nothing.
But his children aren’t going to let this happen without a fight – they intend appealing the judge’s verdict. When approached by YOU they declined to comment because the matter still has to be resolved in court. And what about their cousins? “We have no feelings of ill will toward our female cousins,” Johan says. “But the legal system has ruled in our favour and we only hope we can one day put all of this behind us and that the family can once again look each other in the eye.”
THE cousins grew up together among the ostrich enclosures on the plains of the Little Karoo and in their younger days often visited one another, Arno recalls. “We have no bad feelings towards them,” he says, echoing his brother’s sentiments. “It’s not our fault our greatgrandfather chose to leave his land to his male heirs.”
He says before the court case he and his brothers tried to settle the matter but their cousins apparently informed him via SMS that they would prefer to communicate through their lawyer.
“And then the lines of communication were closed,” Arno says. “We haven’t had any contact in the past two years.”
Great-grandfather Carel and his wife
were married in community of property and owned farms all over the area, as well as land further afield.
Their estate consisted of plantations and buildings all along the Grobbelaar’s River, properties in Oudtshoorn, as well as the farms Stolsvlakte, Welgevonden, Wildehondekloof, Vogelfontein and Vinknestrivier.
In their will they left land and property to each of their four sons and two daughters. But clause seven set the proverbial cat among the pigeons. It states: “It’s the desire of the undersigned (Carel and Catharine Dorothea) that after the death of their children such land be inherited by their sons and their sons after their passing. In the event of any sons passing on without male heirs the land must be transferred to brothers or the sons of their brothers.”
IN THEIR court application the sisters focused only on the farms that were owned by their grandfather Cornelius Albertus de Jager. He died in 1957 at the age of 76. Cornelius – or Bokkie, as he was called – had three sons, Corrie, John and Kalvyn, who each inherited a third of his farming properties.
Corrie didn’t have any children but was well travelled and had lots of overseas contacts in the ostrich industry. Kalvyn was musical and passed his talent down to his five daughters. John was a dedicated farmer and served on many agricultural advisory boards.
The three brothers lived on different farmsteads mere kilometres from each other and Kalvyn and John’s children grew up together. They often spent holidays together and there were plenty of family get-togethers at Corrie’s holiday home in Buffelsbaai.
Because Corrie had no children his share in the farm was split between Johan and Kalvyn when he died. After John’s death in 2005 his third of the land as well as the sixth which he had inherited from Corrie passed on to his sons.
When Kalvyn died in May 2015 his daughters decided to take legal action regarding their family’s land. In documents their lawyer, James King, presented to the court, he states that the will discriminates against females in an unfair manner by limiting benefactors to “sons” and “male descendants”.
He adds that the five sisters don’t want to change the will but rather wish to make an amendment. According to them instead of their dad’s land being divided among their cousins, the will can be interpreted in a way where Kalvyn’s five grandsons inherit. Surina, Elna and Trudene each have a son while Kalene has two. Annelie is the only sister who doesn’t have any sons.
It was no secret that Kalvyn really wanted a son, Johan says. When he realised that it wouldn’t happen, he made an arrangement where his nephews leased the land from him.
“Kalvyn knew that we would inherit the land and that’s why he didn’t want to invest in it,” Johan adds.
“I’m disappointed that this has gone so far. We’re not upset with anyone but we stand by the court’s decision. We love our family and our cousins very much. In the long term I hope we can move on from this and don’t drift further apart.”