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2009-UP-502 - Estate of Connor #2

THIS OPINION HAS NO PRECEDENTIAL VALUE.  IT SHOULD NOT BE CITED OR RELIED ON AS PRECEDENT IN ANY PROCEEDING EXCEPT AS PROVIDED BY RULE 268(d)(2), SCACR.

THE STATE OF SOUTH CAROLINA
In The Court of Appeals

In the Estate of: Margaret S. Connor,

Leroy W. Connor and Yvonne C. Austin, Appellants,

v.

Stephen M. Slotchiver, as Special Administrator of the Estate of Margaret S. Connor, Respondent.


Appeal From Charleston County
 R. Markley Dennis, Jr., Circuit Court Judge


Unpublished Opinion No. 2009-UP-502
Heard September 2, 2009 – Filed October 29, 2009


REVERSED AND REMANDED


Bernard Fielding, of Charleston, for Appellants.

John Massalon, of Charleston, for Respondent.

PER CURIAM: Leroy Connor and Yvonne Austin (collectively Appellants) appeal the circuit court's order affirming the probate court's authorization of the sale of certain real properties from the estate of their mother, Margaret S. Connor (Margaret), and directing payment from estate assets of fees earned by the special administrator and his counsel.  Appellants argue the circuit court erred in applying the standard of review, authorizing the sale of certain estate assets, denying Appellants' claims relating to due process and breach of fiduciary duty, and discerning which issues were stayed by Appellants' prior appeal.  We reverse and remand.

FACTS

Appellants' mother, Margaret, died August 4, 2004.  Shortly after her death, the probate court, on its own motion, appointed Stephen Slotchiver as special administrator of her estate.  In January 2006, Slotchiver filed a proposal for distribution of Margaret's estate.  Appellants filed a number of exceptions that were heard by the probate court in October 2006.  Appellants also challenged Slotchiver's petition for payment of fees to the special administrator and his counsel; the probate court heard these matters in March 2007.  Subsequently, the probate court issued two orders dismissing the exceptions.  Appellants appealed both orders to the circuit court, which affirmed in September 2007, and then appealed to this court. 

During the pendency of the appeal from the circuit court's September 2007 orders, Slotchiver petitioned the probate court for authorization to sell some of the estate's real property to pay creditors.  Appellants responded by filing an answer and a motion to dismiss the petition.  About the same time, Slotchiver's counsel petitioned for payment of attorney's fees.  The probate court denied the motion to dismiss and approved both Slotchiver's petition to sell property and his counsel's petitions for payment of attorney's fees.  Appellants appealed to the circuit court.  After hearing arguments on April 17, 2008, the circuit court affirmed.  This appeal followed and was heard contemporaneously with the appeal from the circuit court's September 2007 orders.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

Appeals from the probate court are governed by the provisions of the Probate Code.  Matter of Howard, 315 S.C. 356, 360, 434 S.E.2d 254, 256 (1993).  The Probate Code provides that a final order or decree of the probate court may be appealed to the circuit court.  S.C. Code Ann. § 62‑1‑308 (2009).  Generally, an appeal from an order of the circuit court is to the court of appeals.  S.C. Code Ann. § 14-8-200 (Supp. 2008). 

An issue regarding statutory interpretation is a question of law.  Univ. of S. Cal. v. Moran, 365 S.C. 270, 274-75, 617 S.E.2d 135, 137 (Ct. App. 2005).  If the proceeding in the probate court is in the nature of an action at law, neither the circuit court nor the appellate court may "disturb the probate court's findings of fact unless a review of the record discloses there is no evidence to support them."  Neely v. Thomasson, 365 S.C. 345, 349-50, 618 S.E.2d 884, 886 (2005).  Likewise, in an equitable matter decided by the probate court and affirmed by the circuit court, the "two-judge" rule requires an appellate court to uphold the decision of the circuit court if any evidence supports it.  Dean v. Kilgore, 313 S.C. 257, 259-260, 437 S.E.2d 154, 155 (Ct. App. 1993). 

LAW/ANALYSIS

Appellants assert the circuit court erred in failing to find Slotchiver was precluded from bringing additional actions in the probate court while the validity of his appointment was on appeal.  We agree. 

Service of a notice of appeal deprives the trial court of jurisdiction over the matters appealed: 

Upon the service of the notice of appeal, the appellate court shall have exclusive jurisdiction over the appeal; the lower court or administrative tribunal shall have jurisdiction to entertain petitions for writs of supersedeas as provided by Rule 241.  Nothing in these Rules shall prohibit the lower court, commission or tribunal from proceeding with matters not affected by the appeal.

Rule 205, SCACR. 

As a general rule, the service of a notice of appeal in a civil matter acts to automatically stay matters decided in the order, judgment, decree or decision on appeal, and to automatically stay the relief ordered in the appealed order, judgment, or decree or decision.  This automatic stay continues in effect for the duration of the appeal unless lifted by order of the lower court, the administrative tribunal, appellate court, or judge or justice of the appellate court.  The lower court or administrative tribunal retains jurisdiction over matters not affected by the appeal including the authority to enforce any matters not stayed by the appeal.

Rule 241(a), SCACR.  "After service of notice of appeal, any party may move [the lower court, administrative tribunal, appellate court, or judge or justice of the appellate court] for an order lifting the automatic stay."  Rule 241(c)(1).  The supersedeas or lifting of the automatic stay, as well as any other affirmative relief granted, may be conditioned on such terms as the tribunal, court, judge, or justice entering the order deems appropriate.  Rule 241(c)(3). 

We reverse the circuit court's refusal to dismiss Slotchiver's petition to sell real estate as a matter stayed by appeal under Rules 205 and 241.  The circuit court found the validity of Slotchiver's appointment was an issue already on appeal, yet went on to find Slotchiver's petition to sell estate assets was unaffected by the appeal.  We find Slotchiver's authority to pursue a petition to sell estate assets derived from and depended entirely upon his position as special administrator of Margaret's estate.  Because the legitimacy of Slotchiver's appointment as special administrator was an issue on appeal, Rule 241 imposed an automatic stay on his administration of the estate.  Thus, the automatic stay prohibited him from performing additional administrative duties during the pendency of the appeal. 

In so ruling, we are mindful that suspending the sole administrator's authority to manage an estate may grind the gears of the probate process to a halt and could expose the estate to liability for unpaid accounts, for example, property taxes, that become due during the period of suspension.  While the suspension may preserve estate assets, it does not further the Probate Code's purpose of "promot[ing] a speedy and efficient system for liquidating the estate of the decedent and making distribution to his successors."  S.C. Code Ann. § 62-1-102(b)(3) (2009).  However, an automatic stay under Rules 205 and 241 is not unassailable:  a party to the action need only petition either the trial court or the appellate court for an order lifting the stay.  See Rule 241.  In this matter, Slotchiver could have petitioned for a writ of supersedeas under Rule 241.  The record does not reflect he did so.  Because Slotchiver's authority to administer the estate was automatically stayed under Rule 241 but he failed to seek an order lifting the stay, he lacked authority to submit petitions for court action on behalf of the estate.  Therefore, the probate court erred in considering the petition to sell real estate, and the circuit court erred in affirming the probate court's decision. 

Because reversal as to this issue is dispositive of the case, we decline to address Appellants' remaining issues.  See Futch v. McAllister Towing of Georgetown, Inc., 335 S.C. 598, 613, 518 S.E.2d 591, 598 (1999) (ruling an appellate court need not review remaining issues when its determination of a prior issue is dispositive of the appeal).

CONCLUSION

We conclude the appeal of the validity of the special administrator's appointment imposed an automatic stay upon his administration of Margaret's estate.  Because the special administrator did not obtain a court order lifting the automatic stay, it was still in effect when he petitioned to sell estate assets.  Accordingly, we reverse the circuit court's decision approving the sale of estate assets and remand this case for further proceedings.  We do not reach Appellants' remaining issues. 

REVERSED AND REMANDED.

KONDUROS and LOCKEMY, JJ., and CURETON, A.J., concur.