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‘Honor debt’ admission didn’t revive old debt 

By: Heath Hamacher//February 4, 2022

‘Honor debt’ admission didn’t revive old debt 

By: Heath Hamacher//February 4, 2022

A fathers signed acknowledgement that an unpaid debt to his ex-wife’s estate was an “honor debt” that was owed to his daughters “both legally and as their father” wasn’t an unequivocal admission the debt was due, and so the statute of limitations precluded his daughters from collecting the debt from his estate, the South Carolina Court of Appeals has ruled. 

After William Murry and Minnie Murray divorced in 1967, William promised to repay Minnie for personal securities she’d pledged as a collateral for a loan of nearly $143,000. Minnie died three months later, and the debt was transferred to her estate. In 1980, William agreed to repay the loan’s balance of $240,000 and maintain a life insurance policy, but he stopped making payments on both the debt and the policy in 1986. 

Minnie’s three daughters were the beneficiaries of her estate, and in 1992, they agreed that the debt would become community property between them. In several letters sent to William from 1998 to 2006, Elizabeth Murray, the administrator of the estate, reminded him of the unpaid debt. In one, purportedly signed by William in 2006, she asked him to affirm the “honor debt” that she said he owed both legally and as their father. When William died in 2007, Minnie’s estate filed suit for the balance of the debt.  

William’s estate filed notices of disallowance of their claim, and the daughters petitioned for allowance. In 2017, Charleston County Probate Court Judge Tamara C. Curry granted summary judgment to William’s estate, finding that any debt was owed to the daughters jointly and not Minnie’s estate. Curry also found that the petition would anyways be barred by the statute of limitations because William last paid the debt in 1986, and the 2006 letter didn’t revive the debt because it wasn’t a clear and explicit promise to pay the debt or an unqualified and unequivocal admission that the debt was still due. 

Minnie’s estate appealed, first to the circuit court, which affirmed the probate court’s grant of summary judgment for the same reasons, and then to the Court of Appeals. In a unanimous Jan. 19 ruling, the Court of Appeals also affirmed. 

Acting Judge James E. Lockemy, writing for the court, said that Minnie’s estate did have standing to file suit because the sisters’ agreement amongst themselves didn’t legally transfer the debt from the estate to them personally, and so the estate retained the right to enforce the debt. But Lockemy agreed that the petition was nevertheless barred by the statute of limitations. 

Although the 2006 letter identified that William owed the debt, whether currently or upon his death as a valid claim, it wasn’t an unequivocal admission that the debt was due because William could have believed that he acknowledged that repaying the “honor debt” was a moral obligation as their father, not a legal one. The letter, as such, was insufficient to renew a debt on which the statute of limitations, generally three years in South Carolina, had run. After that time, there must be an “express promise” to pay, or an admission of a subsisting debt which the party is willing and liable to pay. 

“These statements were equivocal because by signing the letter, Murray seems to have acknowledged only a moral obligation and not a legal one to repay this debt that is now over two decades old,” Lockemy wrote. “Because the letter contained equivocal language and an expression that was inconsistent with Murrays intent to repay the debt, we find this letter was insufficient to demonstrate an unequivocal admission that the debt was due and unpaid.” 

Lockemy also agreed that the issue was one for the court and not a jury. Quoting language from an 1897 ruling in Hill v. Hill, he said that although a jury may decide whether the debt being sued for is the one acknowledged by the debtor, the question of whether an instrument purporting to be an acknowledgment of a debt is sufficient to release it from the grip of the statute of limitations remains a question for the court. 

Elizabeth also sued William’s estate on behalf of her business, Elizabeth Stylesetters, claiming that he’d agreed to repay her for expenses that she paid while working for him at his inn from 1999 to 2002, but the court held that judicial estoppel barred this claim as well. Elizabeth contended that William had the capacity to agree to pay her hundreds of thousands of dollars, but in separate, ongoing trust litigation just months earlier she’d argued that William—who was diagnosed with Parkinsons disease in 2001—was legally incompetent. 

“This demonstrated an intent to mislead the court because Elizabeth and her business advanced whichever factual position was most advantageous to their claims in each case,” Lockemy wrote.  

George Kefalos and Oana Johnson of Charleston, Barry Baker of Baker & Varner in Charleston, and Stephen Slotchiver of Mount Pleasant represented Elizabeth Murray.  

None of the attorneys returned messages seeking comment on the decision. 

Robert Hood, Deborah Sheffield, and Molly Hood Craig of Hood Law Firm in Charleston represented William Murray’s estate.

Craig wrote in an email to Lawyers Weekly that they are pleased with the ruling in a case that has been delayed for more than 14 years.  

“With this appellate decision, we are hopeful that now the probate administration of Mr. Murray’s estate can proceed with distributing his assets in accordance with his last wishes,” Craig wrote. 

The 17-page decision is Murray v. Estate of Murray (Lawyers Weekly No. 011-005-22). The full text of the opinion is available online at 

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