Massachusetts Probate

When a loved one dies, the last thing that you want to think about is going to court and focusing on the legal technicalities related to their estate. However, because Massachusetts law generally requires that an Order of Probate of Will is required before the property in a decedent’s estate can be transferred, families must turn their attention to the requirements of probate fairly soon after the loved one’s death. Mass. Gen. Laws Ann. § 3-102. Probate is the legal process of determining if the will is valid. The administration process involves finalizing the decedent’s affairs. Note that an estate must go through an administration process even if the decedent did not leave a valid will.

Jurisdiction and Management of Probate

In Massachusetts, the Probate and Family Court serves as the probate court and has jurisdiction over probate matters. There is a Probate and Family Court in each county in Massachusetts. The Probate and Family Court in the county where the decedent was domiciled at the time of death is the appropriate court for initiating probate. If the decedent was not domiciled in Massachusetts, then probate must be initiated in any county where property of the decedent was located at the time of death. Mass. Gen. Laws Ann. § 3-201

A personal representative appointed by the court is responsible for managing the process under the Probate and Family Court’s supervision. Before the personal representative can move forward, they must qualify, and the court must issue them a document called letters. Mass. Gen. Laws Ann. § 3-103

Debt Payment and Asset Distribution

Finalizing a decedent’s affairs 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, in Massachusetts debt does not disappear when someone dies. The money is still owed and the debt enforceable. Creditors are notified early in the process. Beginning at the date of death, creditors have one year to file claims to collect what is owed to them.

It is critical to 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. Creditors whose claims have not been barred may even be able to go after distributees to satisfy debt owed by the decedent. Mass. Gen. Laws Ann. § 3-104.

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 is that at the end of probate no assets remain in the estate. Thus, once debts are paid the balance of the property is transferred to others as instructed by the decedent in their will or according to Massachusetts’ law.

Probate Disputes

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 probate disputes occur during the process. When the parties cannot resolve disputes on their own, they can end up in court.

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 failure to meet the legal requirements for execution, the testator was under undue influence or duress, the will is fraudulent, and the testator lacked mentally 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.

Whatever the basis of the dispute, probate litigation can have a significant impact on the process. It can delay probate and change who ends up receiving estate assets. It can also reduce the value of the estate as Massachusetts’s law requires that reasonable attorneys’ fees and other expenses incurred by the personal representative related to estate litigation be paid from estate assets. Mass. Gen. Laws Ann. § 3-720

Intestate Succession

If a will was never executed or was invalidated, the estate would be classified as intestate. However, that does not mean that the estate is exempt from court-supervised administration. The estate still must be settled. Debts must be paid and the property must be distributed. The key distinction between administration of intestate and testate estates is how it is determined who gets estate property.

For testate estates, the will sets forth who gets what. With intestate estates, Massachusetts’s intestate succession law determine who gets what. Mass. Gen. Laws Ann. §2-101. Under the law, the level of kinship of the surviving family members determines who will inherit. The surviving spouse and descendants are first in line to inherit.

Simplified Administration Procedures

Massachusetts offers a simplified process to allow for a much quicker transfer of property. This process is called “Collection of personal property by affidavit.” Mass. Gen. Laws Ann. §3-1201.

The procedure can be used only if:

  • The property is worth $25,000 or less, and there is not real estate; or
  • The property value 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.

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