The leader of our Estates team in Gauteng is passionate about helping people who’ve lost a loved one, and she relishes the complexity of the cases that come across her desk at Sentinel. Did we mention that her zest for life is positively contagious?
“If you’d told me as a little girl that estates would be my passion, I would have laughed at you.” Marietjie always thought she would be a teacher. “But,” she continues, “certain things happen to you that form you.” Marietjie lost her dad when she was just five years old and her mom never remarried. “I think that’s where my passion for helping people who’ve lost someone close was born.”
Despite this early tragedy, Marietjie and her sister had a “happy and emotionally privileged childhood” growing up in Pretoria. They say it takes a village – and she felt at home in almost every house on her road. On weekends she and her friends would climb up the back of the Zwartkops drive-in screen and drop eggs to “test gravity” or sneak in to watch a movie. On Sundays they’d all flock to the Zwartkops Raceway to get a slice of the racing action.
Untangling Christmas lights
After school, Marietjie took the advice of the careers counsellor and signed up for a law degree. But she soon realised it wasn’t for her – “All the studying was cutting into my social life!” – and swapped to Public Management in the hope of indulging her passion for politics. As it happened, her career took a different turn – but, 25 years later, she has no complaints. “I absolutely love what I do,” she says. “I always say a living person’s assets and heirs and liabilities are like a tangled ball of Christmas lights … Our job is to untangle them without breaking any lights.”
Marietjie got her first exposure to deceased estates at FNB Trust, where she spent five happy and educational years. “Once you get into Estates you never leave,” she says. “I think the reason I enjoy it so much is that while the process is always the same, everything else changes from one estate to the next. The people, the assets, the heirs … They all help to make up the puzzle and keep it interesting.”
But that’s not to say it’s an easy job. You have to be passionate about admin and you also have to know how to make clients comfortable and be good at reading people. “The moment I walk into a family meeting I can sense whether it’s going to be a tricky estate – or at least I could before COVID and Zoom meetings.”
Of course, the heightened emotions of losing a loved one mean that even the happiest families and the most straightforward estates have their challenges. “When you first meet a client it’s not even real for them yet,” explains Marietjie. “They can’t believe their loved-one has passed away and here you are trying to get them to complete endless admin.” As the process unfolds, the administrator often ends up walking with the client through all seven stages of grief: including anger. “They do often go through a phase of being angry with us about all the red tape,” says Marietjie. “But I know it’s part of their grieving process, so I don’t take it personally.”
“The FNB old girls’ club”
Marietjie resigned from FNB to become a mom. But once the kids were at school, she found herself itching to work again. So, she called an old FNB colleague who’d moved to Sentinel and asked her to keep a look out. “It’s been happily ever after since then…” Marietjie really found her groove at Sentinel, and she relishes the complexity of the work. “The job is the same but we’re dealing with interesting estates and interesting clients and assets in multiple jurisdictions,” she explains. “We’re much more dynamic than the trust company next door.” She also adores the “family feel” of working at Sentinel. “As staff we are really close. And we actually like each other.”
Suret Hunt, who started out as Marietjie’s assistant eight years ago, says she’s learnt almost everything she knows about estates from Marietjie. “When I joined I had no experience, but she took me under her wing,” remembers Suret. After a while Marietjie encouraged her protégé to qualify through UNISA. “On those days when I felt I couldn’t do it anymore, Marietjie was there to pick me up,” says Suret. “She’s got a wicked sense of humour and there’s nothing she doesn’t know about estates. But she’s also a complete perfectionist … If there’s even a single full stop missing, she won’t sign a document!”
A near-death experience
Last year the Master of the High Court accidentally coded Marietjie as “dead.” While she’ll probably never hear the full story of how this came to pass, rumour has it that her ID number was used as an example in a training session for junior court officials … And someone accidentally pressed enter. “When I first heard about it, I thought some fraudster was trying to get at my policies, so I immediately checked on the Home Affairs system. Luckily, I was still alive.” But still it took the Master seven months to resolve the issue.
Marietjie couldn’t take up appointment as an executor while she was “dead,” so colleagues had to do it on her behalf then give her power of attorney. “They killed her off but her heart was still pumping,” laughs Suret.
What makes this all even more ironic is that Marietjie is as vivacious and full of life as it’s possible to be. She uses her seemingly boundless creativity to craft hand-stitched leather handbags (she’s now taught her husband and friends the art of leatherwork too), to make her own essential oils and to indulge her passion for scrapbooking, crochet, cookie decorating and numerous other hobbies … She’s also a keen builder of Lego sets, a collector of vintage typewriters, and a “small car enthusiast” with a Suzuki Jimny and a Fiat 500 in her garage.
While Marietjie has no plans to change anything about her work or home life, she’s really looking forward to visiting the Victoria Falls for the first time next year. “I’d have loved to go in the Jimny,” she laughs. “But it just makes more sense to fly.”