In Byrd v. McDonald, op. No. 5409 (S.C.Ct.App. filed June 8, 2016) (Shearouse Adv.Sh. No. 23 at 66) the S.C. Court of Appeals decided the appeal of a probate court action to determine heirs and partition real property. The probate court determined the heirs at law of the deceased original owner, and ordered the decedent’s real property be partitioned by sale. Several heirs appealed, arguing the probate court improperly determined the percentage ownership of the heirs, and that the probate court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to partition the real property.
Appellants first argued the probate court improperly determined that one decedent’s interest passed like personal property pursuant to Georgia law, rather than passing like real property pursuant to South Carolina law. The Court of Appeals affirmed that interests in real property located in South Carolina pass at the decedent’s death according to South Carolina law. Id. at 69 (citing Stent v. McLeod’s Ex’rs, 7 S.C. Eq. 354, 355 (S.C. App. L & Eq. 1827). However, because there was no evidence in the record to support the appellants’ argument that the percentages assigned by the probate court were incorrect under South Carolina law, the Court of Appeals affirmed the probate court’s decision. Id. As a result, while the appellants were correct in their legal claim, they lost on appeal because they failed to properly include evidence in the record on appeal supporting their factual claim.
The appellants also argued the probate court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to partition the subject real property. The Court of Appeals looked at three statutes relative to this issue. First, Section 62-1-302 grants the probate court jurisdiction over “estates of decedents, including the … determination of heirs and successors of decedents….” Id. at 70. Second, Section 62-3-911 grants the probate court subject matter jurisdiction to hear the petition of “one or more heirs … prior to the closing of the estate, to make partition.” Id. Finally, Section 15-61-50 provides jurisdiction to the circuit court to “make partition in kind or by allotment … or … by sale of the property and division of the proceeds according to the rights of the parties.” Id.
After reviewing these three statutes, the Court of Appeals held that none of them granted subject matter jurisdiction to the probate court to partition the real property at issue. Section 62-1-302 was silent as to partitions, such that the Court found that section did not give the probate court jurisdiction over partition actions, but “ merely … over the estates of decedents”. Id. Then the Court ruled out section 62-3-911 as granting subject matter jurisdiction, because it only applied to partitions while “while the estate remains open.”
Id. None of the parties, nor any of the decedents, had open estates at the time of the petition. In fact, one of the parties provided an order in the probate court record showing the estate of the original owner was closed in 1948. Finally, because the last statute provided jurisdiction in the circuit court for partition actions, the Court of Appeals held that the circuit court was the proper forum in which to file a future partition action. Id. As a result, the Court vacated the probate court’s order partitioning the real property.
The Court of Appeals upheld established probate law regarding real property. The Court also confirmed the limited subject matter jurisdiction of probate courts involving real property. Given the now concurrent jurisdiction of circuit courts to determine heirs at law, practitioners can initiate an action to determiner heirs at law and partition any associated real property in one action in the circuit court. See e.g., S.C. Code Ann. § 62-1-302(a)(1) (granting concurrent jurisdiction to circuit courts to “determine heirs and successors as necessary to resolve real estate matters, including partition…”); see also, Rule 71(d)(1),SCRCP (“In all actions for partition, all heirs at law ordevisees of the deceased person shall likewise be made parties.”)