An Introduction to Probate and Estate Administration in Massachusetts

The Basics

The Massachusetts Uniform Probate Code governs the probate and administration of Massachusetts estates, and the probate of in-state real property that is part of an out-of-state estate. The Code applies whether the deceased died with a will (that is, died “testate”) or died without a valid will (“intestate”). Under the Code, small estates containing $25,000 or less and no real estate may be filed under a simplified process known as voluntary administration. However, more substantial estates must be filed for either formal or informal administration.

A formal administration is a proceeding in which a Probate Court judge makes binding determinations about certain fundamental aspects of the estate, such as whether the decedent left a valid will, and/or who is to serve as personal representative of the estate. The Court will require hearings on these issues with notice to all interested parties, who are given the opportunity to object and present their own facts and arguments to the judge. In contrast, an informal proceeding is an expedited process that does not require hearings on such matters. Furthermore, an informal estate’s personal representative, once appointed, may act in the absence of court orders. Whether an estate can be administered under any these three procedures will depend on various factors including the form and amount of estate property, the availability or competency of heirs, and the existence or validity of a will, to name a few.

If an estate is going to involve complicated decisions about the financial or legal affairs of the deceased, or where there is a possibility of a dispute among heirs, a person with an interest in the estate may request a supervised administration. Under this proceeding, the Probate Court will exercise continuing authority over the estate, in which the judge quite literally supervises the Personal Representative, taking all interested parties into account when issuing orders affecting the estate.

The Personal Representative

Under formal and informal probate administration, an individual with an interest in the estate must first petition the Probate Court for appointment of a Personal Representative to act on behalf of the estate. The Code provides a “ladder” of individuals entitled to priority for appointment for that position. Once appointed, the Personal Representative is responsible for administering the deceased’s final legal and financial affairs and for distributing the estate’s assets. It is important to understand that the Personal Representative can be held liable for any mismanagement of estate assets. Thus, anyone charged with responsibility for administering an estate will benefit from consulting an experienced lawyer before filing an estate for administration and nominating someone to serve as Personal Representative. This is particularly true when probate involves substantial financial assets or real estate, or where these exists a possibility of dispute among the heirs.

Protecting the Rights of Interested Persons

One need not be an heir of the deceased to file an estate for administration or to make a claim against an estate. Rather, the Code gives various interested persons the right to file an estate, to seek or nominate others for appointment as Personal Representative, and to make claims against the estate. If you are a creditor of an estate, an individual or institution named as a beneficiary under a will, or an heir of the deceased that objects to the way an estate is being handled, the Code provides mechanisms for protecting your rights and interests.

This blog will continue to explore in greater depth various aspects of probate administration in Massachusetts. If you have a probate question, please do not hesitate to contact us right away. Our office has years of experience handling probate and estate matters with discretion and compassion.