Wednesday, May 4, 2016

A closer look at Lexington County Probate Court

Update 4/28/2017 - It's now a matter of public record that Senator Setzler does indeed have a CONFLICT OF INTEREST when it comes to SC's probate racket. He derives income from his probate-dealing law firm.

Self-serving slobs - er I mean attorneys - in the legislature have passed a law prohibiting probate court personnel from giving "legal advice." Kinda vague, but the message is clear: "Drum up as much business as possible for probate attorneys."

Summary of my situation

I initially telephoned Lexington County Probate Court and was told that my mother's will was no longer valid, and I would have to contact an attorney. I told them I wanted to act as my own attorney and was told that I couldn't do so.

I then contacted the attorney who drew up my mother's will. He no longer handled probate matters, and referred me to an attorney in Richland County who offered to resolve my mother's will for $1,800 and my dad's for an additional $700 (I should be able to probate my dad's will myself, but my mother's will has to be probated first). When asked, he said I could represent myself in resolving my mother's will, but he "wouldn't recommend it."

Next, I visited the probate court with my mother's will, explained that an attorney had told me I could represent myself, and was nonetheless again instructed to see an attorney, and I was given a couple of phone numbers for lawyer referral services. And... I was strongly advised to see an attorney in Lexington County.

Right. If yer gonna force folks to hire an attorney, it might as well be one in the county the court is located in. Never mind that any probate attorney in the state is capable of handling the matter.

After I persisted in requesting to represent myself, mention was made of a "Determination of Heirs," the fact that the court had no forms relevant to this, and that in addition to preparing legal documents, there was some sort of requirement that I run a few newspaper ads. Later, I telephoned the court and asked for a standard packet of forms. I noticed a place to explain facts justifying "Tardy Probate," so I went ahead and completed the first form - an application to be appointed personal representative of my mother's estate - had it notarized, and took it to the court...

But alas. The notarized application to be appointed personal representative of my mother's estate - which shouldn't have been necessary anyway since I was named Executor in her will - was refused. I was told that "an attorney will have to be involved," and when I asked court personnel to provide that in writing, my request was refused. Twice.

So I consulted an attorney in Lexington County. In fact, I consulted an attorney in the law offices of my district's senator - and probate attorney - Nikki Setzler. Not that Senator Setzler might conceivably have a conflict of interest when it comes to legislation aimed at simplifying the probate process, but his guy wanted $1,500 plus $275 per hour to probate my mother's estate.

Shortly thereafter, I contacted my district's House representative Kenny Bingham to see if any efforts were underway to eliminate South Carolina's time limit for probating wills, and that led to a bill giving probate courts discretion. The bill remains in committee, but at least it's a start in addressing the probate/trust racket in South Carolina.

Probate racketeering is taking place all across America, and it's the product of a brain-dead, cowardly public that tolerates anything special interests dish out. For anyone out there who still has a sense of fundamental decency and is willing to act on it, here are a few suggestions:

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 5/13/2016 - Monday of this week, I sent an e-mail to Senator Setzler, asking what he's done, or plans to do, to simplify South Carolina's probate process, and I encouraged him to support Kenny Bingham's efforts. I'm unaware of any response from Senator Setzler. Stay tuned.

Update 5/21/2016 - Still can't find any response from Senator Setzler. 'Course, I realize that probate attorneys in SC must be very busy these days...