What exactly is probate?

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:

  • Spouse of the decedent
  • If there is no spouse, children of the decedent (minor children present unique issues)
  • If no spouse or children, other heirs of the decedent
  • After 45 days, a creditor of the estate may ask to be appointed

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.

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