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Crime & Courts

Guest Column: South Carolinians Deserve Adult Conservatorship, Probate Reforms

Rick Black: “Conservatorship is a system designed by attorneys to serve attorneys at the expense of South Carolinians.”

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A cancer has been growing in South Carolina for decades. But the cancer to which I refer isn’t one medical doctors can treat. It deals with values, honor and a genuine commitment to fellow South Carolinians – or in this case, a lack thereof. It also deals with members of the state bar (attorneys) and the legislature (many of whom are also attorneys) who continue to dupe the people of the Palmetto State into believing nothing malignant is growing that could destroy honest, respectful and vulnerable South Carolinians and their heirs.

Our court system has three distinct branches: Criminal, civil, and equity courts. Most Americans are familiar with criminal and civil courts. Equity courts were introduced about a century ago to quickly resolve family conflicts. They were granted jurisdiction to adjudicate divorce, child custody, adult guardianship and conservatorships – as well as probate matters.They are the least publicly funded and resourced of the three branches. 

Twenty-first century South Carolina attorneys built the state’s equity court system. These courts operate with the lowest level of oversight and use the lowest burden of proof to justify an order – ”the preponderance of the evidence.” Orders are often based on argument alone, with no thorough review of the evidence or the law. The participants – other than the judge and clerk – are compensated by those subject to the rulings. In a conservatorship, the primary funding source is the estate of the respondent – the person who is alleged to be incapacitated and in need of conservatorship.

Conservatorship is a system designed by attorneys to serve attorneys at the expense of South Carolinians.

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Probate court in South Carolina handles adult guardianship, conservatorship and probate matters. Probate judges are elected in South Carolina at the county level. To qualify for probate judge, you must be a qualified elector of the county, be at least 21 years of age and have either a bachelor’s degree or four years of experience as an employee in a probate judge’s office. As a result, many judges in the state know less about adult guardianship or conservatorship than the attorneys who present cases to them.

National estimates indicate South Carolinians are currently transferring more than $25 billion annually to heirs due to death, gifting and trusts.  Generational wealth transfer has never been larger in the history of our country.

Trust and estate attorneys seek to make as much money as they can facilitating generational wealth transfer.  Executing estate documents such as wills or trusts gives an attorney insight into a client’s wealth and their family dynamics. Creating a conservatorship over an estate holder gives an attorney near-unlimited ability to apply fees against an estate. Creating a fraudulent conservatorship can allow a predatory attorney to steal or charge fees consuming the majority of an estate paying themselves and their network.

Using 2014 estimates from the National Center for State Courts, we assume South Carolina has over 20,000 adult wards in the state and adds over 3,000 new wards each year. The estates of these conscripts are estimated to total over $4 billion. Unfortunately, the South Carolina supreme court does not require county probate courts to provide an annual census of adult wards – or the total assets under the control of the court.

Probate and adult conservatorships are BIG business for South Carolina attorneys who work in trust and estate law.  Successful litigators often make between $300-$900 per hour. And depending on the quality of the judge – and their opposition – they have ample opportunity to manipulate, intimidate, lie, extort and embezzle to enhance their income. 

Convicted killer Alex Murdaugh demonstrated that in multiple cases involving numerous probate victims – raising a litany of questions about the system in which he operated (and in which thousands of South Carolina attorneys continue to operate today).

(Click to View)

Defense attorney Jim Griffin, Alex Murdaugh and Dick Harpootlian listen to Creighton Waters in the double murder trial of Alex Murdaugh at the Colleton County Courthouse in Walterboro, Monday, Jan. 30, 2023. Andrew J. Whitaker/The Post and Courier/Pool

Could a court fully overseen by attorneys have caught Alex’s malfeasance and stopped it as it was happening?  Why didn’t Russell Laffitte, Cory Fleming or any of the participating attorneys report him? Why didn’t bar complaints stop him? Why didn’t Hampton County Probate Judge Sheila Odom – who empowered Murdaugh and Laffitte for over a decade with her orders – stop them? Why weren’t Alex Murdaugh and Russell Laffitte exposed and disciplined by the probate court years prior to ultimately drawing the eyes of law enforcement due to suspicious deaths that continued to be elevated by a private news service? 

None of the court’s officers reported Alex because most of them were making money off the chaos he created. And as long as Odom blessed Alex with orders, every attorney and the state bar disciplinary counsel bowed to them. To expose wrongdoing or zealously represent a client became an afterthought at best.

Sheila Odom was the probate judge in Hampton County from 1995 until she retired in January 2023. She, like too many probate judges, assumed the role of entertaining Alex Murdaugh’s arguments and others before her, instead of demanding a review of the evidence, demanding adherence to the law and listening to the voices of the vulnerable and their loved ones.

I followed with keen interest what FITSNews uncovered in 2021-2022 on the Alex Murdaugh murders and the associated nefarious activity of bank president Russell Laffitte and fellow attorney Cory Fleming. While most were interested in all the dying going on within the Murdaugh sphere, CEAR was interested in the red flags their reporting revealed in probate.  Over $9 million by my count, had been inappropriately acquired by Alex and his network over the previous decade by leveraging probate court dysfunction to steal from the very people he claimed to be protecting.

Judge Odom is not alone in her poor judgement. Sadly, from Oconee to Charleston and Jasper to Marlboro the beneficiaries of these county courts are too often only stopped when their crimes become so egregious law enforcement is motivated to investigate.

South Carolinians deserve far better than Title 62 — the state probate code — currently provides. Specifically, the South Carolina legislature must demand reforms that protect the public from predatory attorneys and judges with poor judgement in probate. Best practices adopted in many other states include:

  • Digitized records, internet accessible by the public.
  • Video recordings of all hearings.  No chamber discussions.
  • Restricted orders to dismiss or modify executed estate documents and trusts.
  • Mandatory free trained third party nominated respondent counsel.
  • Third party revenue entity to audit all inventories and annual accountings.
  • Jury trials to hear contested cases on an “as new” basis.

South Carolina has adopted none of these reforms. More South Carolinians must make the trek to Columbia to request reforms as those who manage probate courts today like them just the way they work … for them. In the meantime I hope FITSNews continues to publish the probate realities that make every South Carolinian vulnerable.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rick Black is the director of the Center for Estate Administration Reform (CEAR). CEAR is a non-profit focused on redress and reforms to reduce the victimization of vulnerable American adults by the predatory legal community.  We have counseled or investigated over 5,000 cases nationwide since we started our work a decade ago and are headquartered in Charlotte, N.C. Our website is www.cearjustice.org.

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