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What Happens to Your Estate If You Die During a Divorce in South Carolina? Spousal Elective Share
Imagine this scenario:
Husband and Wife have been married for many years. One day, Wife files for divorce. At a hearing a few months later, the divorce is granted.
Husband dies about a week later.
A few days after that, the final divorce decree is signed by the judge, then filed with the clerk.
The tragic and unlikely timing of Husband’s death brings up some important questions.
- Were Husband and Wife still married when he died because the decree wasn’t yet signed and filed?
- Or were they already divorced because the divorce had been officially granted by the court?
- Would Wife be entitled to part of Husband’s estate as a surviving spouse?
This exact situation happened in South Carolina in the late 90s and ended up before the South Carolina Court of Appeals in the 2000 case Hatchell-Freeman v Freeman. It’s an interesting case to know for anyone contemplating or going through a divorce in South Carolina as it answers the questions above.
Dying Before Divorce Is Finalized: Hatchell-Freeman v. Freeman (2000)
In the Hatchell-Freeman case (read it here), Angela Hatchell-Freeman filed for divorce on June 21, 1996. The divorce was granted at a hearing on September 27, 1996, and ten days later, on October 7, Husband died. The final order granting the divorce was signed on October 10, and the following day the order was filed.
In December, father of the decedent Gilbert Freeman filed a petition to be appointed personal representative of his late son’s estate, which the court granted. He did not list Hatchell-Freeman as an intestate heir or as “a person having a prior or equal right of appointment.”
In January, Hatchell-Freeman filed a notice of election by surviving spouse for her intestate share – aka “elective share,” which is a portion of the decedent’s estate the surviving spouse is entitled to by statute. The probate court ruled that she was entitled to elective share.
She also filed a petition to be appointed personal representative, which would mean removing Gilbert Freeman from the role. The probate court ruled that she had had “adequate” time to file – over three months since her husband’s death – and so denied her petition.
Both parties appealed.
The Circuit Court’s Findings
The circuit court affirmed the probate court’s finding that Hatchell-Freeman was the wife of the decedent at the time of his death and therefore entitled to her elective share.
However, it found that she had a superior right to serve as personal representative. Gilbert Freeman was removed from the role and replaced by Hatchell-Freeman.
Gilbert Freeman then appealed.
The SC Court of Appeals
The appeals court affirmed the circuit court’s findings.
It found that the couple was indeed married at the time of Husband’s death, making Hatchell-Freeman eligible to receive her elective share of the estate. The fact that the divorce had been granted at the final hearing before Husband’s death was irrelevant, as South Carolina Code 62-2-802(c) (1987) is clear: “A divorce or annulment is not final until signed by the court and filed in the office of the clerk of court.”
The court also affirmed the lower court’s decision to replace Gilbert Freeman with Hatchell-Freeman as personal representative. SC Code 62-3-203(a) (1999) lists in order which individual should be given priority for the role of personal representative, and when there is no will naming a personal representative (as in this case, since Husband died intestate), a surviving spouse has priority over other heirs.
Although it may not have been Husband’s intention for the woman he was divorcing to inherit any portion of his estate, that’s what happened. But was there something he could have done to prevent it?
(Technically) Married at Time of Death: Spousal Elective Share in South Carolina
As stated above, a surviving spouse is entitled to spousal elective share, which is a portion of the deceased spouse’s estate. The concept of elective share originates from English common law and is widespread across the US, with different laws governing elective share in different states.
In South Carolina, a surviving spouse may claim one third of the decedent’s probate estate. (“Probate estate” is defined in SC Code Section 62-2-202 as “the decedent’s property passing under the decedent’s will plus the decedent’s property passing by intestacy, reduced by funeral and administration expenses and enforceable claims.”) This is a minimum; the testator or testatrix can of course leave more than one third of their estate to their spouse in their will.
It doesn’t matter whether the decedent had a will or not; whether the couple was separated at the time of decedent’s death, divorce pending; or even whether the decedent had purposely left the surviving spouse out of the will in an attempt to disinherit them. The surviving spouse is legally entitled to their elective share.
In short, if you die before your divorce is signed and filed, your spouse is entitled to claim a portion of your estate under South Carolina law even if that’s not what you want. The only exception is if your spouse has waived their right to elective share, typically via a prenuptial or postnuptial agreement.
Reviewing and Revising Your Estate Plan During or After Life Events – Call Attorney Gem McDowell
If you’ve recently undergone a major life event like divorce, marriage, or birth of a child, you should consider contacting an estate planning attorney to review your last will, powers of attorney, and other estate planning documents. It’s a good opportunity to ensure that your estate plan is in line with your current wishes and life situation.
For help with estate planning, asset protection, and contracts including prenuptial agreements and postnuptial agreements, contact attorney Gem McDowell. He and his team at the Gem McDowell Law Group can help you with your estate planning needs before, during, and after a divorce. Call him at his Mt. Pleasant office at 843-284-1021 today to schedule a free consultation.