Many times people contact our office because a Will has been found among their deceased loved one’s belongings. A common question is what the next step is. The movie depiction of the family attorney reading the Will seldom occurs these days. Instead, the process of administering and distributing the Estate occurs through the process of probate.
Probate of a Will in South Carolina may be either an informal or a formal proceeding. Formal proceedings are subject to more court scrutiny and may be useful in certain circumstances. However, in this post, we will look at the more common informal probate process.
Probate begins by filing the Will along with an Application and certified copy of the Death Certificate with the Probate Court. The Application is a state-approved form, the 300ES. This filing is done in the county where the decedent resided prior to their death (if you are unsure, see our earlier post on this topic). In some cases, the decedent may have property in more than one county or state. In those instances, probate still begins in the county of residence, but may also be conducted where the other property is located.
The Application provides the Probate Court information regarding the decedent, the Will, and the Personal Representative. Once the application is received and processed by the Court, the probate process has officially begun and a Personal Representative is appointed to administer the Estate. We have discussed some of the duties of the Personal Representative in prior posts here and here.
If you have been nominated as Personal Representative in a loved one’s Will, an experienced probate attorney can help you navigate the process and ensure you perform your duties properly.
As explained in a previous post, an estate must be opened in the county of domicile of the decedent. While people may have many residences, each of us only has one domicile.
The court will determine the domicile of the decedent by looking at the following:
In the majority of cases, determining domicile is not a problem. Even those who are fortunate enough to have vacation homes or live in more than one state usually have documentation that establishes where they considered their primary residence, or domicile to be.
This does, however become a big issue in two situations that are more common than many might realize:
INCAPACITY – If someone passes away after living in a nursing home, there is often confusion about in which county the estate should be opened. Is it the county where they originally lived or the county where they were in a long term care facility? The answer to that questions is determined by the decedent’s intent when they moved. For example, if someone is diagnosed with early Alzheimer’s and decides, on their own, to move into an assisted living facility where they later pass away then it is likely that they changed their domicile from the county where they originally resided to the county where they passed away at the time of the move. In a second example, if an elderly person becomes incapacitated due to dementia or Alzheimer’s and they are placed in a care facility with participating in the decision, then it is likely that their domicile does not change. The issue her is intent. Someone must have the intent to change their domicile and therefore anyone who becomes incapacitated for any reason is considered to be domiciled in the county where they resided at the time the incapacity occurred. An example of this rule can be found in the ruling of
MILITARY – Military personnel also provide a unique domicile issue. Again, the court will focus on intent. The general rule is that a member of the military, regardless of where they are stationed, is considered domiciled in the county where they resided at the time they enlisted. This rule is easily overcome by actions such as purchasing a home away from the military base or marrying someone in a location where they are stationed and expressing an intent for that location to be their “home.”
The issue of where the estate is opened is important to the court because it is their responsibility to ensure that they have jurisdiction over the estate. If an estate is opened in the wrong county, creditor’s could claim they did not have proper notice and interested parties may unknowingly open a second estate in the other county. If everyone applies the rules of domicile correctly, then all parties will know where to look when trying to find someone’s estate.
Important Note: Effective January 1, 2014 there were substantial changes in South Carolina’s Probate Code. While we’ve tried to update this blog, please note the date of blog posts and send us an email or call for a consult before relying on information written prior to January 1, 2014. We appreciate your understanding.
Technically, the word Probate means “to obtain the official approval of, as of an instrument purporting to be the last will and testament.” (Thanks Webster!) However, in the common sense, probate describes the process by which the Probate Court oversees the transfer of assets from someone who has passed away (the “decedent”) to those entitled to receive them. The word probate has become tainted by all the “avoid probate” propaganda used when financial planners or others are trying to sell trusts, annuities or other products. In reality, what you are really trying to avoid in this process is taxes and creditors, not “probate,” so don’t fear the court. In fact, Probate Court Judges are the only elected members of the judiciary in the state and generally strive to be as helpful as possible.
A review of assets belonging to the decedent at their time of death is required in order to know whether or not you will need to go through probate. For example, if the decedent owned any real property (real estate) or titled assets (cars, vehicles, boats, mobile homes) in their name alone, you will definitely be required to go through the probate process. Additionally, if the decedent held bank accounts, investment accounts, CD’s or other assets in their names alone, probate is the only way to get access to this property (although some estates may qualify for an abbreviated procedure called a small estate). Even if the decedent didn’t own any assets, probate may still be required as only a Personal Representative appointed by the Probate Court may act on behalf of the decedent to bring a lawsuit. So, now that you realize your probably can’t “avoid probate”, what do you need to know?
A decedent’s estate must be probate in the county where they are domiciled. In most cases, this is their place of residence. However, it is possible to have more than one residence but you can only have one domicile. If your loved one lived in multiple places, a probate attorney or the court may be able to assist you in determining which court is appropriate. Each county in South Carolina has a Probate Court which is almost always located in the county courthouse. Once you have determined which court you must file in, it is wise to contact that court for specific office hours and to determine if you must have an appointment to open an estate. In some cases, if you are particularly internet savy or have an attorney assisting you, you may not have to appear in the court at all.
To open the estate in South Carolina, you must have proof of death. This is generally accomplished with a death certificate but in unusual circumstances proof from another government agency can be provided. If the decedent had a will, you will also need to deliver the original to the court (where it will remain). The minimum fee to open the estate is $25, made payable directly to the probate court. Additional court costs will be due once the court determines the extent of the decedent’s assets.
Last, but not least, the person who appears at the court should be the person who intends to serve as the Personal Representative (a general term in South Carolina which includes Executors and Administrators). The will should name the Personal Representative. If there is not a will, South Carolina law determines who has priority to handle the decedent’s affairs. In general, when no will exists, priority of appointment is as follows:
People often wonder how quickly they should go to the court to begin the process and there isn’t a perfect answer to that question. The law requires that any person holding the original will of another who has passed away should present it to the court within 30 days; therefore, waiting beyond that period isn’t recommended. Meanwhile, heading to the court before you have the death certificate is premature. In some cases, the only assets available to bury the decedent may be held solely in the decedent’s name which means moving quickly is required. In general, how quickly you go is likely determined by the unique circumstances in your case.