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Clearing Up Confusion About Probate in South Carolina
For some people, “probate” is a dirty word. Much of this attitude comes from not understanding the process, so let’s clear up the confusion.
What Probate Is and What Probate Isn’t
There are some myths out there about probate, so here’s what it’s not: Probate is not a way for the government to take the estate of someone who dies without a will. Probate is not a way to avoid any applicable estate taxes. Probate does not take many years (except in rare cases).
Probate is simply a process, overseen by the court, in which a person’s estate is settled. It’s a way for ownership of assets to be transferred to other people and for final taxes and debts to be paid.
For an estate to go through probate, no estate planning is required. A person’s estate can pass through probate whether they died without a will or with one, as long as it has assets that are subject to the process.
For an estate to avoid probate, the deceased must own no assets subject to probate at the time of death. A common way to do this is to put all those assets in a living trust (an inter vivos trust), which stays in someone’s name and control during their lifetime and immediately passes to the named successor trustee upon death. The assets owned by the trust are not subject to probate.
What’s subject to probate and what’s not?
Assets subject to probate in SC include:
- Real estate held as a tenant in common
- Property owned solely in the deceased’s name
- Interest in a partnership, corporation, or LLC
Assets not subject to probate in SC include:
- Real estate held as a joint tenancy with right of surviorship
- Retirement accounts with named beneficiary
- Insurance accounts with named beneficiary
- Pension plan distributions
- Assets held in a trust
- Assets that are payable-on-death or transfer-on-death
Now that we know what probate is and isn’t, let’s look at the process.
The Probate Process in South Carolina
The probate process consists of a series of steps:
1. Deliver the will at death. Someone in possession of the deceased’s will must deliver it within 30 days to the judge of the probate court, or to the personal representative named in the will, who will then deliver it to the judge.
2. Personal representative is appointed. This person is typically named in the will and is officially appointed by the court.
3. Notice to intestate heirs is sent. Heirs can contest if they aren’t named or are treated differently.
4. Inventory and appraisement of the estate. This must be filed within 90 days of the opening of the estate. Professional appraisers may be needed to provide the values at the date of death for assets like homes, art, and jewelry.
5. Final accounting. This involves paying applicable taxes, outstanding debts, and ongoing expenses while settling the estate, such as legal and accounting fees. If there’s not enough money in the estate to pay all debts owed, creditors will be paid in order of priority according to South Carolina code (as described in Section 62-3-805).
6. Disbursements. If there’s money left over after debts and taxes are paid, distributions may finally be made to the heirs according to the will, or, if there is no will, according to the state.
7. Close the estate. The personal representative files a number of documents with the court after the above steps have been completed, and the estate is finally closed when the court issues a Certificate of Discharge.
How Long Does Probate Take in South Carolina?
How long it takes an estate to go through the probate process depends on a number of things, including:
- Whether the deceased had a valid will or not
- How large and complex the estate is
- Whether the will is contested
- Whether lawsuits are filed
- How efficient the personal representative is
Under good conditions, a relatively simple estate can take approximately a year from open to close. More complex cases will take longer.
(Note that “small estates,” which contain no real property and total less than $25,000 in value, may qualify for a summary administrative procedure, a quicker and cheaper process than the regular probate process. A small estate can be settled in a matter of a few days or weeks.)
Is It a Good Idea to Avoid Probate?
Now that you know more about probate in South Carolina, you may be wondering whether it’s smart to approach estate planning with the intent of avoiding probate altogether. There are many things to consider, so that’s the subject of the next blog.
For help with your estate plan, contact Gem McDowell and his associate Lauren Turowetz at the Law Office of Gem McDowell in Mount Pleasant. Contact Gem and Lauren today at (843) 284-1021 to set up a consultation.