"In most areas of this country, the probate process is a scandal, a form of tribute levied by the legal profession upon the estates of its victims both living and dead." - editorial by Norman F. Dacey, author of How to Avoid Probate. (Updated in 1984 and 1990)
It's been kept remarkably quiet - everyone I've mentioned it to is shocked and dismayed - but South Carolina has a 10 year limit - beginning on a decedent's date of death - for probating a will. The law allows no exceptions and was passed in 1986, the year the legislature ushered in a slew of lawyer-serving complexities - effective 7/1/87 - for anyone attempting to claim an inheritance. Enter a sadistic little "gotcha" game, whereby unsuspecting heirs are told that a decedent's will is no longer valid, "Deeming" a decedent to have died without a will opens up a lawyer's smorgasbord of legal complexities, including court appearances, court fees, intricate filing requirements (ever tried filing a lis pendens with a circuit court?), and the preparation of documents you won't find on the Internet. The matter - petitioning the Court for a Determination of Heirs - is suddenly beyond the expertise of most folks, and attorney fees to settle the simplest of such situations are in the $2,000 range. After considering what's involved - make a mistake and the entire process starts over again - if you still dare to attempt to exercise your right to represent yourself, don't be surprised if you're pressured by court personnel to hire an attorney.
The 10-year scam - many states (including Florida, Oregon, and Virginia) have no time limits for probating wills, and Pennsylvania has a limit of 21 years - is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to legislation promoting the interests of attorneys. Lexington County affords a good example. People attempting to probate estates - even if there's a will - are immediately clobbered with thick packets of multi-colored forms that are written in legalese, demand mind-boggling detail (the "Inventory and Appraisement" form, for example, is a product of the SC Tax Commission) and each form has to be notarized. You may be hit with additional forms depending on your situation. Miss any filing deadlines, and an Executor (now called a Personal Representative) is subject to paying penalties. A person must even file a written, notarized application to be appointed Personal Representative regardless of whether or not the person is named Executor or Personal Representative in a will. Here again, if you make an error on any of the forms, the entire form must be filled out again and notarized. The "message," of course, is to hire an attorney, and to drive the point home, each form has a place for an attorney's signature. If you go that route, even for the simplest of cases, prepare to shell out in the vicinity of $700.
Don't think you'll escape the probate nightmare simply because the names of heirs are listed on a real estate deed. A Supreme Court decision closed that threat to the probate process. If your deed doesn't include the phrase "with right of survivorship" or similar language, you're out of luck. J. Kristi Hood, author of Probate Pirates, sums things up in her title to chapter one: "It's all about the money all of the time."
In past years, probating an inheritance in South Carolina was relatively simple, but now the process averages an entire year. Some estates have allegedly been tied up in probate for 10 years and are still unresolved. As for trusts, they've been turned into yet another money-making scheme for lawyers offering to "protect" consumers from the "horrors of probate." Talk about a racket. In his book, "Of the Sharks, By the Sharks, For the Sharks - The Death of Justice," Paul Sharp offers an apt summary regarding Trusts. As things now stand in South Carolina, the "probate pirates" have "gotcha" one way or the other.
Meanwhile, Ashley Landess, president of the South Carolina Policy Council bemoans the "cozy relationship" between legislators and judges, calling South Carolina "the most corrupt state in the country," and allegations of public corruption in the SC General Assembly are making headlines.
Remember: YOUR TAX DOLLARS pay for probate, and it should be an inexpensive, viable alternative to setting up trusts.
What YOU can do:
> Spread the word about the probate/trust racket. Most folks don't find out about the attorney-generated horrors of probate until they are struggling through the bereavement process, and shock value is a key part of the effort to browbeat people into hiring a probate attorney.
> If you need help with non-probate matters, avoid using attorneys who advertise that they specialize in probate. Many attorneys refuse to get involved in the probate racket, and one of them told me with a wink, "It's a 'highly specialized' area of law."
> Refuse to be bullied by the attorney-generated horrors of probate into paying attorneys to set up trusts. Probate is financed with tax dollars, and should be an inexpensive, viable alternative to setting up trusts. Executors (now called Personal Representatives) shouldn't need a law degree to probate an inheritance.
> Cut costs by downloading your own estate documents - especially wills - from the Internet. Paying probate attorneys outlandish fees to "draw up a will" is risky business, because attorney-legislators have a vested interest in nullifying wills.
> Last - and what certainly shouldn't be least (but probably is) - send "your representatives" an e-mail expressing your sentiments about the probate/trust racket.
Update 4/5/2016 - A million thanks to the many folks who signaled their support as I picketed in front of Lexington County Probate Court yesterday afternoon. Probate rackets exploit the vulnerabilities of people struggling through the bereavement process, which is why these scams usually fly "under the radar" of public scrutiny.
Update 4/8/2016 - Thanks to everyone who offered support as I picketed again yesterday.
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