In 2012, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts adopted the Massachusetts Uniform Probate Code which outlines the laws and procedures for probate proceedings for deceased residents of the Commonwealth. “Probate” is the administrative process by which assets of a deceased person’s estate are accessed and transferred to the recipients of those assets specified in the deceased’s Will, or if there is no Will, to the heirs of the deceased as determined by law. The person with authority to access and transfer the deceased’s assets is an appointed “administrator” of the estate called the Personal Representative, formerly known as the Executor. Probate administration includes identifying all the decedent’s probate assets (known as “marshalling the assets”) and debts, filing taxes and paying estate expenses, and ultimately distributing the estate assets.
Probate typically takes at least one (1) year from the deceased’s date of death because creditors have that amount of time to file claims against the estate to collect on the deceased’s debt. Additionally, the complexity of the estate assets, expenses, and relationships between the surviving loved ones can lengthen the time it takes to completely administer an estate. Probate can be avoided through the preparation of an estate plan that best fits your needs and goals.
In general, probate assets are any assets (checking accounts, savings accounts, investment accounts, stock, savings bonds, tangible personal property such as furniture, jewelry or a vehicle, and real estate) owned in the decedent’s individual name which do not designate a beneficiary or co-owner. In Massachusetts, the types of estate assets, their values, and the family dynamics inform which one of the three main avenues of probate are appropriate.
- Voluntary Administration:
Voluntary Administration is the simplest, quickest, and least expensive probate process. If a decedent’s estate consists of a vehicle and other tangible personal property and financial accounts valued at no more than $25,000.00 (in addition to the value of the vehicle), and all of the decedent’s loved ones are competent, reasonable, and communicative adults, then a voluntary administration is the favored option. The appointed Voluntary Personal Representative has limited authority to receive payments of debts due the estate, access and receive the identified tangible personal property and financial accounts, and sell or distribute those estate assets after the payment of outstanding estate expenses and debts. A Voluntary Personal Representative does not have authority to administer real estate property. There is a filing fee of $115.00 to file the Voluntary Administration Statement with the Court.
- Informal Probate:
Informal Probate is the amenable “middle child” of probate and accommodates a wide variety of situations. If the decedent’s estate is over $25,000.00 in value, the probate options are immediately narrowed to informal and formal probate. Informal Probate is commonly a good choice if all of the decedent’s loved ones have those qualities mentioned above, the estate has a number or variety of financial accounts or similar assets, and when the estate owns real estate. The appointed Personal Representative of an informal probate has full authority to take action in accordance with the laws of Massachusetts, which includes selling real estate. There is a filing fee of $390.00 to file the initial Petition for Informal Probate pleadings with the Court and obtain “Letters of Authority” appointing the Personal Representative. Note that there are additional fees to publish notice of the pleadings in the decedent’s local newspaper as required under the laws of Massachusetts.
- Formal Probate:
Formal Probate is the most expensive process and takes the most time relative to the previous options. Formal probate is required if the estate owns real estate that is “registered land,” if an heir’s residence is unknown, or has since died or is incapacitated due to physical or mental disability. It may be warranted when the decedent’s loved ones have poor to nonexistent relationships, or in the event there are numerous or unusual estate assets to probate. The appointed Personal Representative has full authority to take action in accordance with the laws of Massachusetts, which includes selling real estate. There is a filing fee of $405.00 to file the initial Petition for Formal Probate pleadings with the Court and obtain “Letters of Authority” appointing the Personal Representative. Notice of the pleadings must be published in the newspaper at additional cost.
Note that the above filing fees do not include the fees to provide associated legal advice and preparation of the required probate pleadings.
If you are the loved one of a family member who recently passed away, it is important to carefully consider your family member’s assets and your family’s dynamics to determine the best avenue to properly probate the estate. Working together with a knowledgeable attorney to select the most beneficial option and navigate the probate process will ensure the process goes as smoothly, quickly, and cost-efficiently as possible.
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