Lack of wills leaves deceased S.C. firefighters' families 'in limbo'

Editor's Note — While this article relates to a firefighting incident, the underlying issue of the need for all first responders to have a will is extremely relevant to the law enforcement community as well. For more information on this issue, please read our recent exclusive, Preparing for the worst.

By Jessica Johnson
The Post and Courier

CHARLESTON, S.C. — Most of the Charleston firefighters who died in the June 18 Super Sofa Store blaze did not leave behind a will.

Anthony Hayes, an attorney from Columbia offering his assistance in distributing private funds to firefighters' families, said the city of Charleston doesn't know what the firefighters wanted, and the families have been left in limbo.

"The fact they don't have the wills is part of what is causing a notable problem," Hayes said. "It would be wonderful guidance for the city."

Area attorneys who have volunteered to help families settle their estates say they think one of the firefighters who died might have had a will.

Without a will, dissemination of estate assets must be determined through the courts.

Jean Lee, a Charleston attorney, began organizing volunteer legal efforts shortly after the devastating fire.

Lee already has set up a conservatorship for one minor child. But with a will her work could have been easier.

Without a will, a personal representative to handle the estate has to be established in court, and that person must post a bond equal to the amount of estate assets. The court can waive the bond but only if all beneficiaries agree to it. It's one more hurdle that wills eliminate, Lee said.

Roughly two years ago, Mount Pleasant firefighters and emergency responders were offered free will preparation through Hayes' Wills for Heroes Foundation. Hayes launched the program after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

His program helps firefighters and other emergency responders prepare wills and designate a power of attorney free of charge.

The Mount Pleasant Fire Department had planned to bring the program back before the Sofa Super Store fire, Fire Chief Herb Williams said, but the loss of nine Charleston firefighters will probably boost participation.

"People don't think about it," he said. "There is this sense that we are going to live forever."

Williams said many people make sure they have life insurance, but they often put off writing a will.

"The thing is, if you fail to make a will, the Legislature will make one for you," Hayes said.

Generally, law dictates that assets will be split between surviving spouses and children. Half goes to the spouse, and the other half is divided equally among any children, Lee said.

Property, bank accounts and possessions would be distributed through probate. However, Lee said, funds that have a designated beneficiary, such as retirement and insurance plans, wouldn't be passed out through the courts.

Hayes said there is no telling what a court might ultimately decide. A will leaves less wiggle room when legal arguments crop up, and, unfortunately, the Wills for Heroes Foundation never was brought to Charleston, he said.

"Without a will, nothing is clear," Hayes said. "You've left people with potentially lots to fight over."

The more than $1 million raised in private fundraising efforts likely will be left out of probate court proceedings. Because the money was raised after the firefighters' deaths, one could argue that it was not part of their estate at the time of their passing, Hayes said.

Copyright 2007 The Post and Courier

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