In Massachusetts, estates must go through probate court for settlement. This can take anywhere from a few months to a few years, depending on the circumstances. Here’s a closer look at the Massachusetts probate process in 5 steps.
Step 1 – Estate Administration & Intestate Succession
After death, a decedent’s estate must go through probate court. The only exceptions are for trusts and other estate planning mechanisms specifically designed to avoid probate. If a will exists, the court will confirm that it is valid. Unfortunately, some wills are outdated or are not correctly prepared. If no valid will exists, then the court will follow intestate succession laws to identify heirs.
Step 2 – Appoint a Personal Representative
An important step in the Massachusetts probate process is the selection of a personal representative, also known as an executor. This involves verifying that the person appointed in the will is qualified to serve as executor or the selection of one if none exists. Executors can be specific persons or even a company, such as a law office. They need not be related to the decedent. Executors are responsible for many tasks throughout the probate process, which are outlined further below.
Step 3 – Inventory & Liquidation
An executor is responsible for taking inventory of and managing all assets. Physical assets (such as real estate, stocks, or cars) may need to be liquidated. Fair market value should be determined before the sale. Executors oversee the sale process including marketing items for sale and signing sale documents on behalf of the estate. A detailed accounting of these transactions should be maintained.
Step 4 – Disbursement
Executors are also responsible for disbursing funds. This is the step that heirs anxiously await, but it can take quite a bit of time to reach. All funds must be managed in a separate bank account specifically created for the estate and independent from the executor’s personal funds. Debts must be paid before heirs receive their share of whatever remains.
Step 5 – Reporting
There are many financial and reporting requirements for an estate. First is the final federal and state tax return for the decedent. Yearly estate tax returns are also required for as long as estate assets remain. Executors are responsible for these tasks but can enlist the help of professionals such as accountants and attorneys. For estates that take years to settle, courts will review reports to ensure the estate is being managed properly.
Summary of Massachusetts Probate Process
These 5 steps only briefly summarize the Massachusetts probate process. There are, of course, many sub-steps within each. Estate planning attorneys are a helpful resource to executors, particularly with the filing of legal paperwork related to estate administration. If you would like assistance with an estate that you manage, please contact us for more information.