Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility
Home / Opinion Digests / Domestic Relations / Domestic Relations – Subject Matter Jurisdiction – Equitable Apportionment – Trusts & Estates 

Domestic Relations – Subject Matter Jurisdiction – Equitable Apportionment – Trusts & Estates 

Plaintiff’s decedent (Wife) had already filed suit against the defendant-Husband in the family court for equitable apportionment when she died. As a result, Wife’s property rights in the couple’s marital property had vested, and the family court correctly continued to exercise jurisdiction over the equitable apportionment action. 

We affirm the Court of Appeals’ decision upholding the family court’s exercise of jurisdiction. 

S.C. Code Ann. § 63-3-530, governing the family court’s subject matter jurisdiction, provides in subsection (A)(2) that the family court has “exclusive jurisdiction” to settle all legal and equitable rights regarding marital property. Importantly, in S.C. Code Ann. § 20-3-610, the General Assembly has confirmed that each spouse has a “vested special equity and ownership right in the marital property” that is subject to apportionment by the family court at the time marital litigation is filed. Further, the definition of “marital property” in S.C. Code Ann. § 20-3-630(A) provides “marital property” is all property acquired or owned by the parties as of the date marital litigation is filed, regardless of how it is titled, so marital property essentially springs into existence as a legally defined concept at that moment in time. 

As to the probate court, S.C. Code Ann. § 62-1-302(a)(1) gives that court exclusive original jurisdiction over the estates of decedents, including a determination of the property in which the decedent has an interest. The General Assembly has provided the probate court has concurrent jurisdiction with the family court in three instances—issues regarding paternity, common-law marriage, and the interpretation of marital agreements—to the extent they arise in the context of an estate action. Those circumstance are not present here. 

In any event, a provision allowing concurrent jurisdiction is not an abrogation of jurisdiction by the family court. If the General Assembly had intended this result, it could have included this point in the plain language of the statutes governing the jurisdiction of the two courts. It did not do so, and principles of statutory interpretation do not favor implying such a result in the absence of any indicia that this was, in fact, the General Assembly’s intent 

Because Wife initiated this marital litigation in the family court during the parties’ lifetimes, the family court acquired exclusive jurisdiction over the issue of equitable apportionment at that time. In addition to the lack of any overt intent by the General Assembly to divest the family court of jurisdiction in these circumstances, we note the General Assembly has not enacted any comparable statutory procedures for the probate court to follow in identifying and equitably apportioning marital property, as it has for the family court. Thus, the family court is in the best position to decide issues affecting marital property in light of the longstanding, detailed statutory procedures governing the family court’s exercise of exclusive jurisdiction over this subject matter. 


Seels v. Smalls (Lawyers Weekly No. 010-026-22, 13 pp.) (Donald Beatty, C.J.) Appealed from Berkeley County Family Court (Jack Landis, J.) On writ of certiorari to the Court of Appeals. Thomas Ray Sims for petitioner; Diane Current and Donald Clark for respondent. S.C. S. Ct. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *