When a loved one dies, the last thing that you want to think about is going to court and focusing on the legal issues related to the decedent’s estate. Because Massachusetts law mandates that estates of decedents must go through probate before their assets can be transferred, families must turn their attention to the requirements of probate fairly soon after the loved one’s death. Probate is the legal process during which the estate’s debts are paid and assets transferred. In Massachusetts, the Probate and Family Court has jurisdiction over probate matters. Because of the complexities of probate, contact an experienced Massachusetts probate lawyer to guide you through the process.
Probate in Massachusetts
The purpose of probate is to settle the decedent’s estate. “Settling” means paying estate’s debt and transferring its assets to others. The personal representative must pay estate debts and expenses before transferring assets. In general, debt does not disappear when someone dies. The money is still owed and the debt enforceable. Creditors are notified when a probate case is open. Beginning at the date of death, creditors have 1 year to file claims against a decedent’s estate in order to collect what is owed to them. It is critical that the personal representative understand the procedures related to addressing claims and paying debt. The personal representative is required to pay all just debt and to defend the estate against unsubstantiated claims. If the personal representative fails to follow the law on this issue, they may be held personally liable if a just, timely filed claim is not paid and there were assets available to do so.
As an experienced Massachusetts probate lawyer can explained, the other major part of settling a decedent’s estate is distributing its assets. While this is not the case in every situation, generally, the goal of the end of probate is for there to be no more assets in the estate. Thus, once debts are paid, all of the remaining assets are transferred to the decedent’s beneficiaries or heirs based on the instructions in the will and Massachusetts’ law.
Probate Disputes in Massachusetts
Probate typically involves a lot of people. Not only is the personal representative an active party to the process, other interested parties include beneficiaries, heirs, creditors, and other fiduciaries. With emotions running high and a lot at stake, it is not surprising that disputes occur during probate. When the parties cannot resolve disputes on their own, they can end up in court. If this happens, both parties need to be represented by experienced probate lawyers serving Massachusetts.
There are several reasons for probate litigation. If someone believes that the will is not valid, they can object to the will and initiate a will contest. A will contest can only be initiated by an interested party such as a beneficiary of a prior will or an heir as they would have an immediate financial interest in the outcome of the litigation. Common grounds for objecting to a will include improper execution, undue influence, duress, fraud, and lack of testamentary capacity. A will contest could have a profound impact on the fate of the estate because it will determine who is entitled to estate assets.
Probate litigation is also commonly centered on the personal representative. Even though there may be many other people involved in the probate process, the personal representative has a leading role. Each of their actions can be called into question. If someone such as a beneficiary or heir believes that the personal representative is not doing their job as required by law, they can be sued in court and potentially removed.
Whether the probate litigation is about the will, the personal representative, or another issue, it can have a profound impact on the estate. It can delay probate, reduce the value of the estate, and change who ends up receiving estate assets.
Intestate Succession in Massachusetts
Even if the decedent did not leave a will, their estate will have to go through an administration process. The estate’s debts must be paid and the property owned by the decedent must be distributed. For probate purposes, the main difference between the estate of a decedent who left a will and the estate of the decedent who did not leave a will is who gets estate assets. Without a will a decedent’s assets will be distributed according to Massachusetts’s intestate succession law. Mass. Gen. Laws Ann. §2-101. If the decedent has a surviving spouse or a surviving spouse and children, the surviving spouse will receive everything, unless the surviving spouse is not the parent of the children. In that case, the surviving spouse and the children will share in the estate, with the surviving spouse receiving a larger share. In the absence of a surviving spouse or children, the parents are next in line to inherit followed by siblings.
Simplified Administration Procedures in Massachusetts
As an experienced probate attorney in Massachusetts can explain, there is an exception to the general rule that all estate must go through the formal probate process. Massachusetts offers a simplified process for two situations:
- The value of the estate is $25,000 or less, and there is not real estate.
- The value of the estate does not exceed the combined value of exempt property, the family allowance, expenses of administration, reasonable funeral expenses, and reasonable expenses of the last illness.
The simplified process requires that a petitioner file the appropriate paperwork, attesting to the size of the estate and listing its debts. The court will issue an order authorizing asset distribution, following payment of debt.