For an estate to be opened, there must be someone named as the Personal Representative (formerly called an Executor or Administrator). This person is responsible to the court, creditors of the estate and the heirs to ensure that the estate is properly managed and distributed.
Luckily, there are many estates where the court does not have to get involved in choosing the appropriate person. For example, when you write your will, it should always state who you wish to serve as the Personal Representative. It’s also wise to name an alternate in case your first choice is not available.
However, when you die without a will (this is called “intestacy”), the court will have to determine who should be in charge. South Carolina Code Section 62-3-203 determines who has the priority to serve, but the Judge may use his/her discretion to determine if someone with priority is not suitable (or disqualified) for the appointment. Some examples will help explain who gets to serve but remember again that these only apply if you don’t name someone in your will.
The Spouse – Your spouse will be the top pick to serve as Personal Representative (P.R.) if you are lawfully married at the time of your death. This can seem clear but a lot of confusion can arise when couples are separated, estranged, or allegedly common law married. S. C. Probate Code Section 62-2-802 outlines what actions will terminate a spouse’s rights to serve. A spouse serving can also cause problems when the children involved are from a previous marriage. Despite the possibility of future conflicts, the spouse is entitled to serve and will be appointed by the court unless it can be shown that he/she is unfit to serve. A person may be unfit to serve if they are incarcerated, have serious financial problems (check fraud, bankruptcy, history of financial wrongdoings), or are incapacitated. Even if the spouse can’t serve, they are entitled to nominate someone to serve on their behalf.
The Children – If there is no spouse or the spouse is unable to serve (or chooses not to and doesn’t name a nominee to serve in their place) then the children are the next in line. If there is only one child, the court will appoint that child. The debate usually begins when there are multiple children. Since all children have equal priority to be the P.R., the court will choose unless all of the children can agree. When left to the court, the Judge will consider many factors including the opinions and nominations of the heirs, financial stability, criminal history, proximity to the court and many others.
While these two rules will address the majority of cases, there are more complicated issues that arise with minor children, divorced spouses, and those with no children or spouse that will be discussed in Pick Me, Pick Me Part II.