The probate process can be long and drawn-out, costing your survivors time as well as money. Fortunately, South Carolina offers a few probate shortcuts for "small estates." If the property you leave behind at your death is below a certain amount, South Carolina allows the property to be transferred more quickly and with less hassle. In other words, if your estate qualifies as "small," your loved ones may be able to use simplified probate procedures, or even skip probate entirely.
South Carolina offers a procedure that allows inheritors to skip probate altogether. To qualify, the estate (the property you own at death) must meet these requirements:
If your estate meets the requirements listed above, your inheritor can sign a simple document under oath, called an Affidavit for Collection of Personal Property Pursuant to Small Estate Proceeding. This document makes several statements, including that the estate meets the requirements set out above. It also describes the inheritors ("successors") and the property being claimed.
After signing the document (and swearing to its truthfulness) and having it notarized, the probate court judge will approve and sign the affidavit. The inheritor then simply presents a certified copy of the affidavit to the person or institution holding the property—for example, a bank where the deceased person had an account. The inheritor will usually also need to provide a certified copy of the death certificate. After that, the person or institution releases the asset.
Another probate shortcut that South Carolina offers is a simplified probate process for small estates, called summary administration. Unlike the affidavit procedure discussed above, summary administration does not allow your survivors essentially to skip probate. However, the probate process is more streamlined than full probate, saving some time, probate fees, and potentially lawyer fees.
You can petition the court to use summary administration in South Carolina if the value of the entire probate estate (meaning all of the property that the deceased person left behind that is subject to probate), less liens and encumbrances, does not exceed the sum of:
(S.C. Code Ann. § 62-3-1203.) So what does all this mean? It's tricky not to have an exact dollar amount to compare against the size of your estate, but it really depends on your circumstances—for example, whether you leave behind a spouse and/or children.
The bottom line is that if the size of your estate doesn't exceed the sum of these amounts, your executor or personal representative can wrap up your estate in probate court more quickly, because there's very little left in the estate after amounts set aside by law are taken out.
Your personal representative will need to file a Verified Statement to Close Estate (Form 421ES), and can then distribute the assets without having to jump through the hoops of regular probate.
For more help handling an estate in general, see The Executor's Guide, by Mary Randolph (Nolo). For an introduction to how you can plan your estate to help your survivors, try Estate Planning Basics, by Denis Clifford (Nolo).
For more on South Carolina estate planning issues, see our section on South Carolina Estate Planning.