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MA Estate Planning Law (Wills/Probate) Questions and Answers

Welcome to our Massachusetts Estate Planning Law Forum. Feel free to post questions, answers, or comments about wills, trusts, guardians, probate, and other MA estate planning issues.  If you need professional legal advice, please use our Attorney Directory to find a MA estate planning attorney.

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Massachusetts Estate Planning Law Basics

Before we get to the forum, we’d like to present some basic information about estate planning in Massachusetts. Although estate planning is a broad subject that involves many areas of the law, including taxation, insurance, and property law, we can think of it as an attempt to control the way we transfer our property to those who survive us, typically our family members and friends. As you scroll through our forum, you will discover that estate planning is accomplished with many tools, including trusts and wills. If, in this synopsis or in the forum, you see terms you do not understand or that you would like more information about, just use our search tool to find more in-depth discussions.

We should probably start by defining what an estate is: everything you own or in which you have an ownership interest. Your estate plan, therefore, is the means by which you will transfer the ownership of your estate at your death. Your will is a part of this plan, a written set of instructions in which you (the testator) explain to the probate court how you want your probate assets to be distributed. Given that definition, it is important to understand that you may have assets in your estate that are non-probate assets, meaning their disposition will not be controlled by your will.

The simplest definition of a probate asset is anything held solely in an individual’s name at the time of his death, such as a bank account with only the decedent’s name on it. After the death occurs, this bank account does not have an apparent owner. In other words, we cannot look at the passbook or statement and identify the new owner of the money. Accordingly, we must look to the decedent’s will (or to the laws of intestacy if he had no will) to help us make that determination.

Non-probate assets, on the other hand, have a new owner at the moment the decedent dies. An asset such as an insurance policy with an identified beneficiary, for example, will be payable directly to that beneficiary upon the death of the person who owned the policy. This is so even if the decedent’s will states that the insurance proceeds should go to a person other than the named beneficiary. Why? Because a decedent’s will does not control the distribution of non-probate assets. So, rather than passing through the probate process, the insurance policy proceeds are disbursed according to the contractual terms of the policy. Similarly, any property placed in a trust during the decedent’s lifetime will be distributed according to the terms of the trust.

Property might also fall outside of the probate process because of the way its ownership is structured. For example, a decedent may have owned an asset, such as a piece of real estate, with another person as “joint tenants with rights of survivorship.” When one owner dies, full ownership of the jointly owned real property will pass directly to the surviving joint owner, without regard to the provisions of the decedent’s will.

Now that we understand the role a will plays in distributing our estates—and how that role is limited—let’s look at some nuts and bolts. We are all familiar with the most basic part of a will: an identification of the person or persons we want to inherit our property. Some wills identify specific property, but others use generic language, such as “all my possessions and property.” Your will should also name an executor, the person you identify as being responsible for the management of your estate, as well as an alternate executor, in case your first choice is unwilling or unable to serve. As long as the document is properly executed, that’s pretty much all you need for a valid will in Massachusetts.

If you do not have a will, or if your will is invalid, you may die “intestate.” In cases when a person dies intestate, his probate assets are distributed according to statutory guidelines that are extremely rigid. After the payment of expenses related to estate administration, funeral and other debts, and taxes, the decedent’s property is distributed according to a formula that is lengthy and covers many contingencies.

Regardless of whether the decedent had a will or not, whenever a person’s estate contains probate assets, they will be subject to the probate process. This legal proceeding takes place in the Probate and Family Court in the county where he resided. The probate process provides for: the collection and preservation of the decedent’s probate assets; the payment of all debts and taxes owed by the estate; and the determination of the proper distribution of the assets. The process usually starts when someone, often the person named as the personal representative in the will (the “PR”), files a petition for the allowance of the will. If there is no will, an interested party, such a family member, may file a petition for the administration of the estate. After an initial determination that the will is valid or that there is no will, the court will appoint a PR for the decedent’s estate.

Generally speaking, if you can avoid probate through good estate planning, you should. One of the best tools for probate avoidance is the trust. Estate planning attorneys love trusts because, more than any other estate planning document, a well drafted trust can satisfy a whole host of client objectives, including asset protection and tax avoidance. Without going into too much detail we can describe a trust as a contract between the person who establishes the trust (the trustor) and the person who holds legal title to the assets in the trust (the trustee). The trustee agrees to follow the instructions that the trustor has included in the trust for the maintenance and eventual distribution of the property.

Hope all that helps.  Please enjoy this and our other forums and let us know what you think.

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n/a
What to list for estate inventory on small intestate estate?
My mother passed away in January and had no will. She had no real estate and few possessions (mostly clothes, books, and dishes). She owned a car and ...
1 1 year 50 weeks ago
by anon@yahoo.com
1 year 50 weeks ago
by The Editor
Delaying inheritance through trust
My estate (and my wife's) is by no means huge, but we were wondering about how we could use trusts to delay the whole inheritance process. The situat...
1 1 year 51 weeks ago
by HarryV
1 year 51 weeks ago
by The Editor
Filing of First Accounting under new UPC
I was appointed Executor of an estate in August 2011. I have currently been asked by my attorney to prepare info for the First Accounting. Under the...
0 2 years 6 days ago
by nssg
n/a
Closing estate in Massachusetts with new probate code
My brother has been appointed the Personal Representative of my father's estate under the new informal proceedings of the UPC. Under this new system ...
1 2 years 1 week ago
by GreenB
2 years 1 week ago
by The Editor
Husband or wife transferring car after death of spouse in Massachusetts
Hi. I looked through your forum pretty carefully but I can't find information on this. My father recently passed away and left the car that he and m...
1 2 years 2 weeks ago
by BillW
2 years 2 weeks ago
by The Editor
Powers of Executor or personal representative of estates in Massachusetts
I'm listed as the executor in both of my parents' wills (or is it now known as the personal representative?). My father recently passed away. He was...
1 2 years 5 weeks ago
by Rick M
2 years 5 weeks ago
by The Editor
Brother named executor, no estate technically to probate, but need paper stating he was named executor for a certain matter...
My father passed away in Dec. 2009. Three years before his passing, he had a will drawn through his attorney, naming my brother executor. He left the ...
0 2 years 6 weeks ago
by PapRLG
n/a
Probate after Spouse's death
My spouse and I own everything jointly (house, bank accounts, etc). We each have our own 401k retirement accounts with each other named as sole benef...
1 2 years 7 weeks ago
by Mudge
2 years 7 weeks ago
by The Editor
Leaving a child out of the will (disinheriting)
Does MA law allow me to leave one child out but leave property to the other? If so, is there some special procedure I should follow? Thanks in advan...
6 4 years 43 weeks ago
by Simpson
2 years 7 weeks ago
by patotas

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