Unintended Consequences: What Happens When You Don’t Do Things Right
Following procedure is important when it comes to the law.
This may go without saying, yet you’d be surprised at what sometimes happens, and what the consequences of failing to follow procedure can be.
This point is well illustrated by a recent case decided by the South Carolina Court of Appeals, Forfeited Land Commission v. Eartha Dean Moody Beard. (PDF here)
Error 1: Heirs Failed to Submit the Estate for Probate
In 2005, Willis Thompson passed away. He left his home in Bamberg County, South Carolina to Coretta McMillan and his two other grandchildren.
But after his death, the estate was never submitted to probate.
As a quick refresher, probate is the process after a person’s death in which outstanding taxes and debts are settled and assets are transferred to heirs. (Learn more about what probate is and whether you should try to avoid probate here on the blog.)
Since Willis’s estate did not go through probate, the deed to his home was never put in his grandchildren’s names, and he remained the owner of record long after his death.
Error 2: A Notice of Levy Was Not Properly Posted
After her grandfather’s death, McMillan paid property taxes on the home in 2005. However, due to the fact that she didn’t alert Bamberg County that Willis had died and never provided an alternative address to receive tax notices, she didn’t receive any delinquent tax notices for the property in 2006.
When the notices were returned undelivered and stamped “Deceased,” Bamberg County then referred the property over to the Delinquent Tax Office to post a notice of levy on the property and put it up for a tax sale.
The Circuit Court and Court of Appeals later found that the tax office did not follow procedure when it came to posting the notice of levy on the residence. The notice is brightly colored and highly visible, yet there was testimony that the notice was never seen posted on the home. Also, the delinquent tax collector for the office testified that there was nothing in the tax office’s file to indicate that there had been a witness to the posting of the notice, as is procedure.
What Happened Next (The Lawsuits)
The facts of this case are convoluted, but in short, the home was sold to the Forfeited Land Commission (“FLC”) (a county commission that exists to bid on property at tax sales not otherwise sold) and then ended up in the hands of Ralph Johnson, who purchased 38 other properties from the FLC at the same time. Meanwhile, McMillan had paid some of the property taxes for certain years and had also gotten a tenant for the house, unaware that it did not belong to her.
With many players in this story, there were many lawsuits and counterclaims, but it’s not relevant to go into detail about them. The one at hand was heard by the South Carolina Court of Appeals in October 2017 after appearing before the Circuit Court in September 2014.
The Courts’ Findings
The Circuit Court found that McMillan had waited too long – more than four years – to challenge the sale to Johnson. The statute of limitations is two years, which the Circuit Court found was triggered by Johnson’s action to evict McMillan’s tenant from the house in January 2010.
The Court of Appeals disagreed. It found that McMillan’s challenge to the sale of the home was not barred by the two-year statute of limitations because the tax sale was void. It was void because the tax office was not in “strict compliance” with statute, as it had failed to provide the required notice of levy. Because the tax sale was void, the two-year statute of limitations never ran.
The decision reversed the finding that McMillan was barred from setting aside Johnson’s tax deed and remands the case back to the Circuit Court to determine if Johnson is entitled to any amount.
Where This Leaves McMillan
McMillan did win this case but the matter isn’t over for her. It’s been four years since the first trial and 13 years since the death of her grandfather, yet she still does not own the home her grandfather intended to give her after his death. This entire situation could have been avoided by following procedure and putting her grandfather’s estate through probate shortly after his death.
For Important Matters, Work with an Experienced Attorney
When it comes to matters of estate planning, procedure is vitally important, and skipping a step or making an inadvertent mistake can be costly in terms of time and money. It’s smart to work with an attorney experienced in estate planning who can guide you through the process and make sure procedure is being followed.
If you’re looking for help with estate planning in South Carolina, contact Gem and his associatess at Gem McDowell Law Group in Mt. Pleasant, SC. Gem and his associatess help individuals and families plan their estates with foresight and intelligence to avoid problems in the future. Call today to schedule an initial consultation at 843-284-1021.