The most common misconception about South Carolina Probate Judges is that they are all lawyers. While many of them are, an equal number of our Probate Judges are not.
In South Carolina, Code Section 14-23-1040 detail the requirements to be a Probate Judge as follows:
- You must be a U.S. citizen and a resident of South Carolina.
- You must be twenty-one (21) years of age.
- You must be a “qualified elector” in the County where you intend to be a Judge (in other words, you must be a resident of that county).
- You must have a four (4) years bachelor’s degree OR four (4) years experience as an employee in the Probate Court.
The U.S. Department of Justice has not approved the requirement and therefore it’s technically unenforceable. So, reading these qualifications (especially removing the education component), it would seem that a vast majority of people could become Probate Judges; however, the biggest issue is that Probate Judges in South Carolina are popularly elected. And, despite the fact that our legislators have not seen fit to increase the qualifications required, the general public usually applies some degree of common sense when going to vote (note I said usually). This means that candidates will need public support, campaign funding and plenty of yards signs. The filing fee to run varies by county but in many, it’s as much as $3500 just to have your name on the ballet. And, for the most part, the public will vote for someone who is either an attorney or who has experience in the Probate Court, Clerk of Court, or related offices. In fact, some of our best Judges in the state are non-lawyers who worked their way up in the courts.
Probate Judges are county-wide elected positions which means there is one per county (46 in the state as a whole). Currently, Probate Judges do have to “declare” a party (meaning they run as Republicans, Democrats or Independents). Probate Judges are the only elected judiciary position in the state of South Carolina and are bound by very strict ethical rules when running for this position. They run every four (4) years and are allowed unlimited terms.
Besides the minimal qualifications and ability to get elected, there are some traits that are also required to actually perform the function of Probate Judge (and get re-elected). You must be very public service-oriented (low pay, lots of constituent services), have incredible patience, and be capable of reading, researching and understanding the law in the areas of probate, guardianships, conservatorships, and commitments. This isn’t your “typical” judicial position and a quick look at the biographies and backgrounds of our state’s Judges will show you that while almost anyone technically qualifies to run for Probate Judge, it takes a certain temperament to truly get the job done.