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Section 37C of the Pension Funds Act: the identification of beneficiaries and dependants (soMthetho wezikhwama Zempesheni: ukuhlonzwa kwabahlomuli/izindlalifa kanye nabantu abebondliwa ngumufi)



South African family structures are diverse. This diversity may include, for example, more than one spouse under a customary marriage. Many families have dependants, who may include the children of deceased siblings, uncles, cousins etc. In some cases these dependants are not formal adoptions or guardianships, which can often be further complicated by remarriage after a divorce and children from previous spousal relationships are also introduced into the family dynamic. Given this context, trustees of retirement funds are oftentimes greatly challenged when it comes to the identification of dependants, and the fair and equitable distribution of death and/or other approved benefits. This article provides an overview of Section 37C of the Pension Funds Act to guide trustees in this important responsibility.

Isimo sokwakheka komndeni waseNingizimu Afrika siyahlukahluka. Lokhu kwahlukahluka kungenzeka kubandakanye abesifazane abevile koyedwa abashade nomyeni oyedwa ngaphansi komshado wesintu, ukwenza nje isibonelo. Imindeni eminingi inabantu abondliwayo futhi abathembele kumondli wekhaya, okungenzeka babandakanye izingane zabafowabo nodadewabo bakamufi, omalume, abazala, njll. Kwezinye izimo laba bantu abondliwayo bangabantu abasuke bengafakwanga ngokusemthethweni ngaphansi kwesandla somondli wekhaya ukuze abakhulise futhi abondle ngokusemthethweni noma abe ngumnakekeli/umbheki wabo osemthethweni, okuyisimo esivamise ukwenziwa nzima kakhulu wukushada kabusha kwabashadikazi emva kokwehlukana kwabo nalabo abebeshade nabo ngaphambilini bese bengena emshadweni omusha nezingane zabo abazithole emishadweni yabo yangaphambilini. Ngenxa yesimo esinjengalesi-ke, abaphathiswa bezikhwama zomhlalaphansi esikhathini esiningi bavamise ukuhlangabezana nenselele enkulu ekuhlonzeni abahlomuli/izindlalifa kanye nabantu abebethembele kumufi, futhi bahlangabezana nobunzima maqondana nokwabiwa kwemihlomulo leyo ngendlela elungileyo, engenakho ukwenzelela nokuchema, futhi ngokulinganayo. Le ndatshana ihlinzeka ngolwazi olufingqiwe maqondana neSigaba 37C soMthetho Wezikhwama Zempesheni ngenhloso yokuhola nokuqondisa abaphathiswa kulo msebenzi osemqoka kangaka abethweswe wona.


The distribution of death benefits in terms of Section 37C of the Pension Funds Act is often tricky terrain for pension fund trustees. The primary objective of section 37C is to ensure that those persons who were dependent on the deceased member are not left destitute after their death.

Death benefits payable in terms of the Pension Funds Act

When a member of a retirement fund dies before reaching retirement age (and if the rules of the particular fund permit), the benefit that becomes payable (death benefit) must be allocated and paid to the member’s dependants and/or nominees. Section 37C investigations can be lengthy and complex and particularly challenging for a board of trustees when identifying dependants, especially given the geographic, social and cultural landscape in South Africa.

Section 37C accordingly imposes a duty on the board of trustees to conduct a proper investigation to determine all the dependants of the deceased member. Accordingly, trustees cannot merely follow the beneficiary nomination made by the member during their lifetime – the board must establish who the persons are who fall within the ambit of the deceased member’s dependants as defined in the Act.

Once the board has identified all possible dependants, the next stage of the process would be to examine the type of each dependant in order to make an equitable distribution among them. Dependants can fall into one or more of three categories of dependency – legal dependants, financial/factual dependant and future potential dependants. In doing so, the board has to consider all the relevant facts to the exclusion of irrelevant facts. Once the trustees have established the status and circumstance of each identified dependant, the death benefit is allocated and distributed accordingly.

Section 37C(1) trumps other laws

Section 37C(1) specifically provides that, regardless of the provisions of any other law – including the common law – and notwithstanding the rules of a registered fund, all death benefits payable by a fund upon the death of a member shall not form part of the assets in the estate of such a member, but shall be dealt with in terms of the scheme outlined in the said section.

Section 37C sub-section (1) can be summarised as follows:

  • death benefits do not form part of the deceased estate of the member;
  • the member’s freedom of testation and nomination is limited;
  • the law of intestate succession does not apply;
  • death benefits are not subject to the law of marriages; and
  • the common law (including law of contract) does not apply either.

Factors influencing an equitable distribution to dependants

When making an equitable distribution among dependants, the board of trustees has to consider, among others, the following factors:

  • the age of the dependants;
  • the relationship with the deceased;
  • the extent and nature of dependency;
  • the wishes of the deceased placed either in the nomination form and/ or their last will; and
  • financial affairs of the dependants, including their future earning capacity potential.


Section 37C imposes three primary duties on the board of trustees, namely to:

  1. identify and trace ‘dependants’ (as defined in section 1 of the Act) and those persons, if any, who have been nominated by the deceased member;
  2. make benefit allocations on a fair and equitable basis; and
  3. determine an appropriate mode of payment of the death benefit.


Spouse vs. permanent life partner

The status of permanent life partners and the legal debate around the definition of “spouse” is often a contentious issue for funds to navigate. In terms of the Pension Funds Act, a spouse is “a person who is the permanent life partner or spouse or civil union partner of a member in accordance with the Marriages Act, the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act, the Civil Union Act or the tenets of a religion”. There is legal debate around whether permanent life partners are a category of spouse on their own or whether, to be a permanent life partner, the relationship must be recognised by one of the above acts or religion.

It can be argued that the words “permanent life partner, spouse or civil union partner” indicate that a permanent life partner is a category of spouse on its own (for the purposes of the Act) because persons married in terms of the Marriages Act, the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act, Civil Union Act or tenets of a religion already have legal recognition as spouse. Permanent life partners were included in the definition of spouse because without that, they would not be accorded that status and would not qualify for a spouse’s pension.

Their inclusion in that definition therefore elevates their status to that of spouses for the purpose of pension-related benefits. The important point here for funds is that if the cohabitation is not in terms of any act (or religion or custom), the surviving person may still be regarded as a spouse if there was evidence of a permanent life partnership. And if not, it is highly unlikely that someone claiming status as a permanent life partner would not also at least qualify as a factual dependant on the basis of the mutual dependency they carried in a shared household. This would qualify one as a dependant for the purposes of section 37C but possibly not for a spouse’s pension on death.

The principle was clarified in the Pension Fund Adjudicator’s determination in Chittenden v Escourt Butchery Provident Fund, in which the Adjudicator formulated a two-part test for factual dependency in circumstances of unmarried cohabitees. The question was, firstly, whether the parties lived in a relationship of mutual dependence and secondly whether the parties ran a shared and common household. The requirement of mutual dependency must involve, among other things, an emotional and intimate or sexual bond.

In summary

Section 37C of the Pension Funds Act is mandatory in the sense that any death benefit payable by a pension fund as defined in the Act shall not form part of the member’s estate, but rather be dealt with in the manner prescribed in that section of the Act. The legislature has specifically prioritised this section by making the section applicable to any distribution of a death benefit regardless of any other law or the rules of the fund.

Section 37C therefore places a duty on the board of the fund to identify the beneficiaries of a deceased member and also vests the board with discretionary powers on the proportions and manner of distributing the proceeds of a death benefit. As with the exercise of any discretionary power, the board is required to give proper consideration to relevant factors and exclude irrelevant ones from consideration. The board may therefore not unduly fetter its discretion by following a rigid policy that takes no account of the personal circumstances of each identified dependant and of their prevailing situation.

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