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Law clarifies court clerks’ authority

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As Clerk of Superior Court for Wilson County, I would like to give an update and response to a June 28 article that was published in The Wilson Times.

The Wilson County Clerk of Superior Court’s office recently underwent an audit by the N.C. State Auditor. The State Auditor found that the Wilson County Clerk of Superior Court did not collect inventory fees in estate matters in accordance with their auditor’s interpretation of state law. As I have previously stated in an earlier position, the Wilson County Clerk of Superior Court does have the legal authority to decide when it is appropriate to collect estate fees in a pending estate. That position has now been reaffirmed by the North Carolina General Assembly.

DIFFERING INTERPRETATIONS OF LAW

The dispute is centered on differing interpretations of state law. The State Auditor contended that estate fees were due immediately upon filing an estate document called an “inventory,” without exception. The elected Clerks of Court from across North Carolina believed that this was a rigid interpretation and did not take into consideration the practical realities of administering estates.

The Clerks held firm in their authority of discretion of when to collect estate fees, but did not dispute the requirement that the estates fees had to be collected. Over the past few years, the State Auditor and Clerks of Court have debated the implications and the intent of the law.

NEW LAW SETTLES DISPUTE

The N.C. General Assembly was aware of the confusion associated with the differing interpretations of N.C. General Statute 7A-307. On June 28, 2017, coincidentally the same day the article was published in The Wilson Times, the General Assembly unanimously passed House Bill 236.

This bill deleted the portion of the law that the State Auditor based its interpretation upon to make the audit finding concerning the timely collection of estate fees. The legislation endorsed the Clerks’ interpretation of the law.

On July 21, 2017, Gov. Roy Cooper signed House Bill 236 into law, further supporting the Clerks’ interpretation of estate fee collection practices.

NCGS 7A-307(a)(2) now reads “In all other cases, this fee shall be computed from the information reported in the inventory.”

It is now a settled point that the Clerks of Superior Courts’ interpretation of NCGS 7A-307 was correct and that the Clerk of Superior Court does have the legal authority to decide when it is appropriate to collect estate fees in a pending estate matter. It is also a settled point that the state auditor’s interpretation of NCGS 7A-307 and the audit findings associated with the timely collection of estate fees were inconsistent with the legislative intent of the law.

CLERKS SERVE THE PUBLIC

Each day, the clerk’s office stands at the center of the judicial system. We balance our commitment to upholding the law with our duties to serve the public, the judges, the attorneys, law enforcement officers, magistrates and probation officers. Our goal is to serve everyone who needs help, navigating through the complexities of the judicial system.

The administration of estates is a complicated and emotional process that sometimes requires additional time to discover the decedent’s assets or to sell the decedent’s assets to pay the estate claims and associated costs. To the extent that it needs clarification, I would highlight that in the six pending estate files identified by the auditor, the Wilson clerk’s office collected all estate fees in five of those files prior to the audit. In the one outstanding estate file where the estate fees were not collected prior to the audit, the administrator paid the fees immediately after the auditor’s visit.

We work with real people making hard decisions about estate properties. While it is sometimes difficult to take a snapshot of an estate file, the Wilson County Clerk of Superior Court’s office makes it a priority to see not only the paperwork of the file, but also to see the people we serve and their circumstances.

Andrew J. Whitley is Wilson County’s clerk of superior court.

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