Dealing with the death of a loved one is often a stressful, emotionally draining experience. In the midst of grieving the loss, going through the steps necessary to clear title on Aunt Jenny’s house or ensure that dad’s checking account is taken out of his name is often the last thing a person wants to deal with. Frequently, once the grief is less acute, loved ones will circle back and take the necessary estate settlement steps to ensure that everything is out of the decedent’s individual name, but occasionally this does not happen and assets are instead allowed to linger on in the decedent’s name.
In such situations, there is usually a “triggering event” that causes someone to realize that no action was taken. Maybe everyone was content to let cousin Becky live in grandpa’s house (which he held in his individual name) for a while after his death, but now that she’s moved out everyone agrees it’s time to sell, or maybe Mark decided to check the state’s unclaimed property site (www.FindMassMoney.com, FYI) and on a lark entered mom’s information only to discover mom had a bank account in her individual name that everyone forgot about. Whatever the reason, it’s now been several years since the person died and the question on the table is “What can be done to get access to this asset?”
If the loved one died prior to March 31, 2012, then the answer is likely simple: file for a standard probate proceeding just as would be done if the death occurred yesterday. This is because under the law in effect through March 30, 2012, probate proceedings could be initiated in Massachusetts up to 50 years after a person died. However, on March 31, 2012, the Massachusetts Uniform Probate Code went into effect, substantially overhauling the laws governing probate proceedings in Massachusetts. Among the changes was a drastic shortening of the time limit to initiate standard probate proceedings for those who die on or after that date – from 50 years after death to just three years after death.
Fortunately, this 3-year deadline does not mean that grandpa’s house is destined to stay in his name forevermore, unable to be sold or conveyed ever again. Nor does this deadline mean that the state gets a windfall in the form of mom’s unclaimed checking account. Although the deadline to file standard probate proceedings is three years after death, the law permits a special type of probate proceeding, known as a “late and limited” proceeding, to be filed more than three years after death.
As can be gleaned from its name, a late and limited probate proceeding is, well, limited in its scope. Unlike a standard probate proceeding, where the Personal Representative (formerly known as the Executor) has broad authority to deal with the decedent’s probate assets, including taking possession of them and, in some circumstances, selling them, a Personal Representative in a late and limited proceeding only has the authority necessary to confirm that the assets held in the probate estate are now owned by the decedent’s heirs (if the decedent died without a will) or devisees (if the decedent died with a will).
As an example, a standard Personal Representative generally has the authority to unilaterally sell real estate without the consent of the estate’s beneficiaries. A late and limited Personal Representative, on the other hand, generally cannot sell real estate. Instead, the late and limited Personal Representative would confirm that the real estate is now owned by the beneficiary(ies) of the estate, and the beneficiary(ies) would then have to sell the property.
Of course, the best option is to establish an estate plan ahead of time that avoids probate and having the deceased’s estate go through the probate process at all. If that has not been done, and the deceased owned assets in his or her individual name at the time of death, it is generally better to initiate probate proceedings within three years of death. If that’s not possible, worry not, late and limited proceedings are still available to gain access to assets when necessary.
Francis R. Mulé is an associate attorney with the Dedham firm of Samuel, Sayward & Baler LLC which focuses on advising its clients in the areas of estate planning, estate settlement and elder law matters. He is an active member and the Chair-Elect of the Massachusetts Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Division. This article is not intended to provide legal advice or create or imply an attorney-client relationship. No information contained herein is a substitute for a personal consultation with an attorney. For more information visit www.ssbllc.com or call 781/461-1020.
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