Seels v. Smalls

Decision Date03 August 2022
Docket NumberAppellate Case No. 2021-000044,Opinion No. 28103
Citation437 S.C. 167,877 S.E.2d 351
Parties Randall SEELS, as the Personal Representative for the Estate of Olivia Seels Smalls, Respondent, v. Joe Truman SMALLS, Petitioner.
CourtSouth Carolina Supreme Court

Thomas Ray Sims Sr., of Orangeburg, for Petitioner.

Diane C. Current, of Current Law Firm, P.A., and Donald B. Clark, of Donald B. Clark, L.L.C., both of Charleston, for Respondent.


This Court granted a petition for a writ of certiorari to review the decision of the court of appeals in Seels v. Smalls , Op. No. 2020-UP-275, 2020 WL 5814601 (S.C. Ct. App. filed Sept. 30, 2020), which held the family court properly retained jurisdiction to rule on an action seeking the equitable apportionment of marital property after one of the parties, Olivia Seels Smalls ("Wife"), died during the pendency of the action. We affirm.


Wife and her husband, Joe Truman Smalls ("Husband"), were married in 1978 and had three children. The couple accumulated significant assets, including the marital home located in Goose Creek, Berkeley County; eighteen rental properties; and multiple retirement, checking, savings, and investment accounts. Both parties worked during the marriage and contributed to the acquisition of the marital assets.

The parties separated on or about July 2, 2014 when Wife left the marital home. On October 10, 2014, Wife filed the current action in the family court seeking an order that would, inter alia , (1) allow her to live separate and apart from Husband pendente lite and permanently, (2) restrain Husband from harassing her or cancelling her health insurance, (3) permit her to enter the marital home to retrieve her personal belongings, (4) provide separate support and maintenance and/or alimony pendente lite and permanently, and (5) equitably apportion the marital property.

Wife alleged she was in poor health and had been subjected to an extended pattern of abusive behavior from Husband, which escalated after she underwent surgery for lung

cancer in 2013. Wife also alleged Husband committed adultery at various times during their marriage. Husband filed an answer denying the allegations and asserting counterclaims. He likewise sought a divorce and equitable apportionment of the marital assets. The parties engaged in mediation, but Wife suffered a recurrence of cancer

and they never formally entered into a signed agreement resolving their dispute.

Wife passed away unexpectedly on December 17, 2015. Wife's brother, Randall Seels ("Seels"), was subsequently appointed the personal representative of Wife's estate. Seels moved to be substituted as the plaintiff in the case. Husband, however, sought dismissal of the action, arguing the entire matter had abated upon Wife's death.

By order filed April 26, 2016, the family court granted the motion to substitute Seels as the plaintiff and ruled the claim for equitable apportionment, unlike claims for divorce or support, did not abate upon Wife's death. The family court explained:

South Carolina case law provides that, although the issues of divorce and support are abated if one spouse dies during the pendency of the case, the issue of property division is not abated, each party's interest in the marital property becomes vested and fixed upon the filing of the marital litigation and the Family Court retains jurisdiction to identify and apportion the marital property[.]

Thereafter, following a hearing on several motions filed by Seels, the family court issued an order in November 2016 that set a schedule to complete discovery, required the parties to attend mediation, and asked the parties to identify the potential witnesses for trial (should mediation fail). The family court noted it had rejected Husband's oral objection that the family court lacked subject matter jurisdiction because Wife died before a written agreement was reached between the parties.

The family court heard the case on the merits in May 2017. On September 28, 2017, it issued a final order equitably apportioning the parties’ marital property into 50/50 shares. The court again noted that it had denied Husband's motions to dismiss the matter based on a purported lack of subject matter jurisdiction.

Husband appealed, and the court of appeals affirmed the family court's rulings regarding jurisdiction and equitable apportionment. Seels v. Smalls , Op. No. 2020-UP-275, 2020 WL 5814601 (S.C. Ct. App. filed Sept. 30, 2020). This Court granted Husband's petition for a writ of certiorari, which challenged only whether the family court had subject matter jurisdiction to rule on the issue of equitable apportionment.


"Subject matter jurisdiction is the power to hear and determine cases of the general class to which the proceedings in question belong." Majors v. S.C. Sec. Comm'n , 373 S.C. 153, 159, 644 S.E.2d 710, 713 (2007). A judgment from a court that does not have subject matter jurisdiction is void ab initio.

Kosciusko v. Parham , 428 S.C. 481, 492, 836 S.E.2d 362, 368 (Ct. App. 2019).

"The question of subject matter jurisdiction is a question of law." Byrd v. McDonald , 417 S.C. 474, 478, 790 S.E.2d 200, 202 (Ct. App. 2016) (citation omitted). "The jurisdiction of a court is determined by the sovereign creating it," so reference must be made to local law, such as the constitution and the laws of the state. Peterson v. Peterson , 333 S.C. 538, 547–48, 510 S.E.2d 426, 431 (Ct. App. 1998) (citation omitted).

The subject matter jurisdiction of the family court and the probate court are set forth in the South Carolina Code. See generally S.C. Code Ann. § 63-3-530 (2010 & Supp. 2021) (family court); S.C. Code Ann. § 62-1-302 (2022) (probate court). Consequently, the current appeal necessarily involves a question of statutory interpretation. See Singh v. Singh , 434 S.C. 223, 229, 863 S.E.2d 330, 333 (2021) (recognizing "family courts are statutory in nature and therefore possess only that jurisdiction specifically delegated to them by the South Carolina General Assembly"); Judy v. Judy , 393 S.C. 160, 169, 712 S.E.2d 408, 412 (2011) (observing the probate court is not a constitutional court and has only such jurisdiction as may be provided by the General Assembly, consistent with article V, section 12 of the South Carolina Constitution ); see also S.C. Const. art. V, § 12 ("Jurisdiction in matters testamentary and of administration ... shall be vested as the General Assembly may provide, consistent with the provisions of Section 1 of this article."). The proper interpretation of a statute presents a question of law. Town of Summerville v. City of N. Charleston , 378 S.C. 107, 110, 662 S.E.2d 40, 41 (2008).

Questions of law involving subject matter jurisdiction and statutory interpretation are reviewed de novo, without deference to the lower courts. See id. ("[T]his Court reviews questions of law of law de novo."); see also Singh , 434 S.C. at 228, 863 S.E.2d at 332 ("Generally, appellate courts review the decision of the family court de novo, with the exception of evidentiary and procedural rulings.").


As previously noted, Wife initiated this action in the family court for, inter alia , equitable apportionment of the marital assets. It is undisputed that the family court had subject matter jurisdiction over this issue at the time the pleadings were filed. Husband, however, contends the court of appeals erred in holding the family court retained its exclusive jurisdiction to equitably apportion the marital property because the action abated upon Wife's death and the probate court acquired exclusive original jurisdiction over her assets.

Seels asserts, in contrast, that the court of appeals correctly followed existing precedent in affirming the family court's ruling that claims for equitable apportionment do not abate upon the death of a party. Seels maintains the family court retained its jurisdiction to substitute the personal representative of Wife's estate for Wife and issue a ruling identifying and apportioning the marital property. Seels states that, once this process was completed, the probate court, in exercising its exclusive original jurisdiction over Wife's estate, would then be positioned to make the decisions regarding the ultimate disposition of any of Wife's property that was included in her estate. We agree with Seels.

We shall first examine the statutes governing the jurisdiction of the family court and the probate court, as well as provisions allowing concurrent jurisdiction, before turning to a consideration of principles of statutory interpretation and existing precedent.

A. Family Court's Jurisdiction

In section 63-3-530 of the South Carolina Code, the South Carolina General Assembly has statutorily vested the family court with "exclusive jurisdiction" over "domestic matters," including actions for the equitable apportionment of marital property:

(A) The family court has exclusive jurisdiction :
(2) to hear and determine actions for divorce a vinculo matrimonii, separate support and maintenance, legal separation, and in other marital litigation between the parties, and for settlement of all legal and equitable rights of the parties in the actions in and to the real and personal property of the marriage and attorney's fees, if requested by either party in the pleadings[.]

S.C. Code Ann. § 63-3-530(A)(2) (2010) (emphasis added). Jurisdiction to identify and determine a party's rights to marital property is just one of forty-six areas of exclusive jurisdiction enumerated in subsection (A).

The family court's exclusive jurisdiction over equitable apportionment extends to marital property; it has no jurisdiction over nonmarital property. S.C. Code Ann. § 20-3-630(B) (2014). "Marital property" is defined as "all real and personal property [that] has been acquired by the parties during the marriage and [that] is owned as of the date of filing or commencement of marital...

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