Residents Voice Concerns about S.C. Probate Code

September 3, 2012

Investigative Reports

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WalkerState laws dealing with the protection of the elderly and disabled and their property received heavy criticism from South Carolina residents during an S.C. Senate subcommittee hearing last week.

Several residents complained that loopholes in the state Probate Code­ – which, according to senators on the panel, was supposed to be amended during the legislative session that just ended but wasn’t – put the elderly and disabled at a disadvantage.

Those attending the hearing pointed out, for example, that conservators, who are appointed by a court to be the custodian of property belonging to those can’t manage it themselves, would sell off land without notice; or take advantage of their relatives’ funds.

“These conservators are kind of doing what they want,” said Margaret Nelson of Charleston, claiming that her father’s conservator put some of his money in a stock account.

Other residents cited issues with guardians, who are appointed by a court to manage the affairs of those determined to be incompetent to do so.

Ellen Murray of Charleston told the subcommittee that her mother’s guardian would not allow her family to visit her mother. She blamed a section of state law for giving the guardian too much power.

“Can you imagine a stranger saying that ‘no, you can’t see your daughter or granddaughter?’ Murray said. “I think it’s unconstitutional.”

State law says a guardian of an incapacitated person has the “same powers, rights, and duties respecting his ward that a parent has respecting his unemancipated minor child.”

Senators on the subcommittee said they tried to reform the 1987 Probate Code during the 2011-2012 legislative session that ended in July, but they contended they didn’t have enough time to go through the 744-page code.

Panel members said they want to get a reform bill passed next session, which starts in January, after getting citizens’ input.

Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington and the subcommittee chairman, said no final decisions on the bill’s content will be made until the panel’s meetings after the fall elections.

“You’ll know who’s in place then,” he said.

Bill Hyde of Newberry told the subcommittee he wants to see changes quickly.

“This is supposed to be an effort to protect the elderly, to protect them from exploitation,” he said. “The elderly are being exploited.”

Hyde said his mother’s conservator sold her $180,000 house for $130,000, adding, “To this day (my mother) asks me, ‘Where’s my house?’”

Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston and a subcommittee member, said one of the most common complaints he gets is about the Probate Code.

“I hope we do the right thing with this committee,” he said.

The subcommittee plans to hold more public meetings in the coming weeks. The next one is scheduled for 2-5 p.m. Sept. 13 in Room 105 in the Gressette Building on the State House grounds.

Malloy said he hopes the workshops will result in agreements on proposed changes in state law.

“We’ve got a heck of a challenge ahead of us,” he said.

Reach Legette at (803) 254-4411 or derek@thenerve.org.