Crime & Courts

South Carolina Judicial Reform: Probate Courts Finally Addressed

Legislation would impose new standards on multiple Palmetto State probate judges …

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In discussing judicial reform, scandals which originate in South Carolina’s equity courts are far too often overlooked. Much of the current reform debate in the Palmetto State stems from the web of crime and corruption surrounding disbarred attorney and convicted murderer Alex Murdaugh – but the role probate courts played in enabling his maze of criminal activity has been mostly overlooked.

Until now …

A bill introduced by state representative Jay Jordan has sparked a long-overdue discussion about reforming South Carolina’s probate courts — starting with the judges elected to these pivotal positions.

Currently, Palmetto State probate judges are not required to hold law degrees. The law states eligible candidates must hold a four-year bachelor’s degree from an accredited post-secondary institution. Or, if the candidate has not received such a degree, he or she must have four years’ experience as an employee in a previous probate judge’s office. Jordan’s bill – H.5069 – seeks to amend the Palmetto State’s code of laws as it relates to the qualifications of judges in counties with more than 90,000 people. It also seeks to phase out probate judges currently serving in these roles who do not meet the new qualifications.

As of the 2021 census, the proposed amendments in Jordan’s bill would apply to 16 South Carolina counties. Of those impacted counties, five feature elected probate judges who do not have law degrees. Here is a look at the impacted areas …

According to a recent guest column by Rick Black, director of the Charlotte, N.C.-based Center for Estate Administration Reform (CEAR), “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.” Black added.

“Probate and adult conservatorships are BIG business for South Carolina attorneys who work in trust and estate law,” he continued. “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.”

Exploitation of South Carolina’s probate court system was a central theme of the Murdaugh case. While on trial for the June 2021 murders of his wife and son, Murdaugh admitted manipulating the probate system to steal money from a number of his clients. Among them? Hannah Plyler, who – along with her sister, Alania Plyler-Spohn – was represented by Murdaugh after her mother and brother perished in an automobile accident on Interstate 95 seventeen years ago.

(Click to View)

Convicted fraudster Russell Laffitte appears in court in Kingstree, S.C. with his attorney, state representative Todd Rutherford. (Dylan Nolan/ FITSNews)

The federal criminal trial of Russell Laffitte – former chief executive officer of Palmetto State Bank (PSB) and a convicted co-conspirator of Murdaugh – shed additional light on the financial crimes allegedly committed by Murdaugh in the years leading up to the brutal murders of his wife and son. Laffitte was found guilty of conspiracy, wire fraud, bank fraud as well as three counts of misapplying bank funds in U.S. district court in Charleston, South Carolina on November 22, 2022. Last August, he was sentenced to seven years in federal prison.

During Laffitte’s trial, federal prosecutors Emily LimehouseWinston Holliday and Kathleen Stoughton made a compelling case against Laffitte – documenting in meticulous detail how he extended eight loans to himself in the amount of $355,000 from the conservatorship of Hannah Plyler.

Laffitte served as conservator for the Plylers and allegedly repaid money taken from Hannah Plyler’s account with fees fraudulently obtained from other clients. In addition to these financial crimes, Laffitte also extended nearly $1 million in “unsecured loans” to Murdaugh from Hannah Plyler’s account. In an interview posted to YouTube prior to the start of his trial, Laffitte claimed these loans were “just an investment vehicle … you know … they were earning a lot more than they were earning sitting in an account.”

The conservatorship for the Plyler sisters was filed in Hampton County and overseen by probate judge Sheila Odom – an elected official with years of experience but no law degree.

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According to Jordan, discussions about judicial reform at the State House prompted him to introduce probate courts into the process.

“I don’t think people often realize how important probate court is, and how, how you’re gonna have to deal with it most likely in some way, shape or form during your life,” he said.

Jordon said South Carolina has undergone drastic change since the last time probate law was addressed – including an increasing population of older individuals. According to the latest estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau, 27 percent of South Carolina’s population will be over the age of 60 by the year 2030, an increase of more than 37 percent from 2012.

This will result in higher caseloads within probate courts …

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“I don’t think people often realize how important probate court is …”

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According to Jordan, the population cap in his proposed bill is based on differing workloads and numbers of cases from county-to-county.

“There’s a big difference between Clarendon County and Charleston County, I like to say, and while the law doesn’t change – the operations of the court are going to be different,” he said. “So that’s the rationale behind the population.”

“I would hope we would want to this to be an ongoing discussion,” he added. “So that we see how the changes we make work – and what works and what doesn’t – and if it makes sense to broaden it, then so be it.”

For those of you following the ongoing judicial reform discussions, the S.C. House family, business and probate laws subcommittee will meet (.pdf) on Tuesday, March 5, 2024 to discuss Jordan’s reform bill. That meeting will be held at 11:00 a.m. EST in Room 516 of the Solomon Blatt Building on the S.C. State House grounds. It will also be available for viewing on the legislature’s SCStateHouse.net website.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR …

Jenn Wood (Provided)

Jenn Wood is FITSNews’ incomparable research director. She’s also the producer of the FITSFiles and Cheer Incorporated podcasts and leading expert on all things Murdaugh/ South Carolina justice. A former private investigator with a criminal justice degree, evildoers beware, Jenn Wood is far from your average journalist! A deep dive researcher with a passion for truth and a heart for victims, this mom of two is pretty much a superhero in FITSNews country. Did we mention she’s married to a rocket scientist? (Lucky guy!) Got a story idea or a tip for Jenn? Email her at jenn@fitsnews.com.

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