SPARTANBURG, SC (WSPA) — Greenville County Probate Judge Debora Faulkner (D) is hoping her two decades as an incumbent will convince voters that she is still the right candidate for the job.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
“I’m Judge Debora Faulkner. I’m the probate judge for Greenville. County. I am originally from Waterloo, South Carolina. That’s in Laurens County. And I was born and raised there.
“From there, I went to the University of South Carolina in undergraduate school, graduated from there and went straight into the University of South Carolina School of Law. I graduated in 1982.
“My first job was here in Greenville. I worked for the Legal Aid Society here in Greenville. And I worked there for a few years. Then I worked for the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office as an assistant attorney general.
“Then I opened my own practice. In 1996, the probate judge for Greenville County was Diane Smock. She interviewed potential associate probate judges from the members of the Greenville County Bar. I applied. And she hired me.
“I worked for her for three years as her associate probate judge. When she decided to retire from being a probate judge, I decided to run for her seat.
“Having worked there for three years, I knew the job and I enjoyed the work. And I was very motivated and inspired to do the work. So I filed to run for that seat. I was elected. And I have been the probate judge for Greenville County ever since then, which was 1999.”
If you’re elected, are there things that you would like to change or ideas that you’d like to implement?
“I would like to continue building on the foundation that I have established over the course of my service, and that is using technology but not using it so much that we don’t have person-to-person communication.
“When I took office in 1999, there were we had 12 employees. Now I have 34. We had no internet. Now we have internet.
“I implemented the Probate Attorney Web System. It allows attorneys to access our case management system.
“And if a lawyer is going to meet with a client who might want to go and talk to the lawyer about whether or not a will should be challenged or not, when the client comes to the lawyer’s office, a lawyer can already have the will pulled up.
“They can already tell them who the lawyer is representing the other side. They can already tell them of they’ve already filed suit. It saves that client money because the client is billed for all the time that the lawyer has to do research.
“Once a month I turn my courtroom into a classroom. And we teach folks. Anybody can come. We give them a broad overview of the probate process. We don’t give legal advice, but we give them an overview of what they can expect.
“So to build on this in the future, what I’d like to do is to make some YouTube videos and break down the content into little modules on the various aspects of the estate administration and all the other divisions. So the people who can’t come to the class can watch the videos.
“We already have e-filing for marriage licenses, and we will have encrypted emails for civil commitment proceedings once the Supreme Court approves it.
“Then we will have e-filing in Greenville County, which will allow people to file their estate forms online rather than having to send us hard copies.”
What does a probate judge do in South Carolina?
“This particular office is the only one that is elected by the people of South Carolina. There are 46 probate judges. Each county has a probate judge and there are 46 counties. The probate court is a creature of statute, which just means the legislature in Columbia passed laws, and it creates what our court is and what our court does.
“We can’t operate outside any of those statutes. And so we have a very specialized jurisdiction. The most common thing that people realize is that we preside over estates. When I say estates, usually it involves deceased persons. And when a person dies in your county, they file their will in the local probate court.
“If there is no will when they die, we go by the law of South Carolina on intestate succession. And that law tells us who will inherit that deceased person’s property. So if you don’t do a will, that is how your property will be distributed in accordance with that state law.
“When somebody has a will, our obligation is to make sure the intention of the person who made the will is followed to the letter.
“The other division we have are adult competency hearings. If for some reason, an adult in South Carolina loses the capacity to manage their property or manage their own welfare, we step in.
“It could be for a lot of different reasons. In our senior citizen population, it could be because they have some form of dementia.
“Younger people could have been in a terrible accident, they could have a head injury, have a chronic mental illness, or perhaps a chronic chemical dependency such as alcoholism or drug abuse, such that they can be taken advantage of. So we have this division that’s called the protective proceedings.
“The first step in that is to determine if the person meets the statutory definition of incapacitated. Once we do that, then we appoint a conservator to look out for their money. Or we appoint a guardian to look out for their welfare to make sure they’re taking care of themselves.
“We also do trusts and power of attorney litigation.
“We are in charge of the involuntary commitment of people in Greenville County who pose a risk to themselves or to the community because they have a mental illness that they aren’t receiving treatment for, or if they have a chemical dependency, alcohol or drugs, and they’re threatening to themselves or others.
“Our court is charged by statute to make sure that if a person doesn’t get treatment voluntarily, he or she is brought in for help while respecting all of their due process rights and placed in a facility to receive treatment.
“This is a 24/7, 365-day job because these types of things happen outside of normal business hours. So our office is on call 24/7.
“We issue marriage licenses. You have to be at least 16 years old to get married. If you’re not 18, but you are 16, you still need to have parental consent.
“We also make sure that persons who are getting married are competent to get married. So that you don’t have someone who is being taken advantage of.
“We have a way of doing that because I implemented a cross-referencing system. If a person has dementia and they can’t manage their property we cross-reference all the names on that list with the applicants’ names for marriage licenses. Because on a marriage license application, it will ask you if have you ever been declared to be incompetent.
“And if you check yes, you don’t get a marriage license. And some people might check no. And not either not want to tell or not remember. But as a safeguard, we check those to make sure because we’ve had people come in in our office who have been married and they did not have the capacity to get married, and they’ve been scammed.
“And finally, our office is like a library in the sense that all of our records are permanent records.”