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Maine Inheritance Laws

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In Maine, intestacy and contested wills require the application of state inheritance laws to ensure equitable asset distribution. At present, non-compliance with these legal frameworks or disregard for beneficiary interests can lead to significant complications, including will invalidity and tedious litigation.

An illustrative case is that of the Zani brothers, who contested their mother's will, claiming the existence of a prior, more advantageous version. Additionally, they raised concerns regarding her testamentary capacity at the time of the contested will's execution.

This case shows how personal motivations can lead to will challenges. This remains true even when a valid legal document exists However, even clear inheritance laws cannot prevent legal disputes if some family members feel they've been treated unfairly.

With that in mind, this article aims to give a comprehensive overview of Maine's inheritance laws, covering will validity considerations and probate process intricacies. Understanding inheritance laws can help people protect their rights and minimize family conflicts.

What Happens if Someone Dies With a Will in Maine?

When a Maine resident dies with a valid will, the filing of the will with the probate court triggers the probate process, ensuring the estate is distributed according to the testator's wishes.  The will nominates a personal representative (executor or executrix) to oversee the estate's administration and inheritance distribution, and the court officially appoints them.

For a will to be valid in Maine, it must comply with several statutory requirements, including:

  • Testator age: At least 18 years old or legally emancipated.

  • Testamentary capacity: Sound mind, free from undue influence or mental incapacity.

  • Format: Either printed or typewritten.

  • Signature: Personal signature or authorized signature with the testator's awareness.

  • Witnessing: Presence of at least two qualified witnesses during the signing.

Consider hiring an estate planning attorney to help you draft your will and ensure it meets all legal requirements. Alternatively, Maine offers a standardized statutory will form for simpler estates.

A person making a will (the testator) can hire an estate planning attorney for help in writing their will. They can also utilize Maine’s statutory will as an alternative. 

In Maine, probate is common but not always required to transfer some assets after death. For example, when a property has joint ownership, the right of survivorship ensures that the remaining owner automatically becomes the sole proprietor upon the original owner's death, bypassing the need for probate.

Similarly, estates with a total value exceeding $40,000 may benefit from the simplified probate process. This involves filing a small estate affidavit, which streamlines the transfer of assets and facilitates a quick resolution compared to the traditional probate process.

Contesting a Will

Contesting a will, also known as "will contest," is a process that can only be initiated by an "interested party," someone with legal standing, to question the will's legitimacy.

Typically, individuals with legal standing fall into one of the following categories:

  • Beneficiaries named in a previous or subsequent will.

  • Potential heirs under the laws of intestacy if no will existed.

  • Beneficiaries named in the current will itself.

In Maine, various grounds can be used to contest the validity of a will, including:

  • Undue influence: The deceased was pressured or coerced into making the will.

  • Lack of testamentary capacity: The deceased lacked the mental ability to understand the implications of creating a will.

  • Improper execution: The will was not signed or witnessed in accordance with legal requirements.

  • Fraudulent procurement: The will was obtained through deception or misrepresentation.

The burden of proof lies with the party contesting the will. They must provide sufficient evidence to establish one of these legal grounds for the will to be declared invalid.

After a Maine resident dies, a beneficiary or even someone not named in the will can start a legal challenge within 30 to 90 days. This timeframe is typically triggered by the executor notifying the designated beneficiaries of the will's execution, marking the commencement of the probate process.

The process of contesting a will in Maine involves several key steps:

  1. Petitioning the probate court: The interested party, known as the contestant, must file a formal claim with the probate court in the county where the deceased resided.

  2. Preparing for court proceedings: The contestant may be required to participate in various court hearings, discovery processes, and depositions as the case progresses.

  3. Considering settlement offers: In some instances, the beneficiaries named in the will may offer the contestant a financial settlement to avoid a lengthy and uncertain legal battle. This settlement typically represents a compromise, often less than what the contestant could gain through a successful will challenge.

The outcome of the contest holds significant consequences for the contestant. If they prevail, they will inherit the assets they contested, but a failed challenge could lead to the forfeiture of any inheritance rights they otherwise held under the will.

What Happens if Someone Dies Without a Will in Maine?

When someone dies without a valid will in Maine, their estate is considered "intestate." This signifies that the deceased either lacked a will or possessed one deemed legally invalid. In such cases, the court decides who inherits based on the state's intestate succession laws. Beneficiaries under this system cannot contest the court-ordered distribution of the estate.

Following a death, probate serves as the legal process for administering the deceased's estate. To initiate probate, an interested party, such as a family member or the nominated personal representative, must file an "application for probate" with the probate court in the county where the decedent resided. Since no will exists, the court appoints a personal representative to manage the estate. This role typically falls to an adult child or surviving spouse. The help of a probate attorney may also be vital in making this process easier.

Probate Process

The general Maine probate procedure is shown in the following table:

Step

Timeline

Requirements

Preparing and submitting the probate petition

One to four months

A valid will and the decedent's death certificate - which is typically supplied by the funeral home - are needed to file a probate petition. Beneficiaries or interested parties get an official notice of probate from the executor or personal representative.

Providing notification to creditors


Three to six months

The decedent’s will must be known to all creditors, just like it is to all beneficiaries. Creditors and other businesses or individuals to whom the decedent owed money must be notified by the estate’s personal representative.

Settling all debts and fees

Six to 12 months

Using the estate funds, the executor must settle all professional and personal debts of the deceased.

Inventorizing the assets

Six to 12 months


Since it is a part of the formal estate record, an inventory of the estate’s assets is an essential component of the will. 

Distributing the assets

Nine to 18 months

The estate executor should ensure all creditors are paid and that all residual assets are accounted for. 

Closing the estate

Nine to 24 months

The probate process may reach its conclusion upon completion of debt settlement, tax filing, and asset disposal or distribution. The probate court judge then issues a final order discharging the personal representative from their responsibilities.

Spousal Rights

In Maine, when a married individual dies without a will, their spouse's inheritance follows specific intestacy laws outlined in the state's probate code. These laws dictate the distribution of the deceased's assets in the absence of a documented will.

The decedent’s spouse will get the first $300,000 of the intestate property, plus 3/4 of the remaining amount if the deceased had surviving parents but no descendants.

In cases where the deceased had children or other descendants from the surviving spouse, the intestate property's distribution becomes more complex. The same holds true if the spouse has additional descendants from past relationships unrelated to the deceased. 

Under Maine's intestacy laws, the surviving spouse receives the first $100,000 of the estate, followed by half of the remaining assets. This ensures a significant portion of the property remains within the immediate family unit formed by the spouse and their shared descendants.

Finally, if the decedent had no children with the surviving spouse but had descendants from previous marriages, half of the intestate assets may go to the surviving spouse.

Children’s Rights

If there is no will, state law determines how much of the estate each child inherits. This is called their "intestate share.” The intestate share depends on how many children survive the deceased, if the deceased was married, and if the surviving spouse is also the child's parent.

The following are children’s inheritance rights in Maine:

  • Adopted children: Lawfully adopted children inherit intestate shares on par with biological offspring.

  • Posthumous children: Children conceived but not yet born at the time of the decedent's death are still considered legal heirs and entitled to a share of the estate.

  • Grandchildren: If a child predeceases their parent, their children (grandchildren of the decedent) inherit the share their parent would have received. This is known as the right of representation.

  • Children born outside of marriage: In some cases, children born to unmarried parents can still inherit. This includes cases where:

  • The decedent and the child's parent participated in a later-declared void marriage.

  • The decedent formally adopted the child.

  • The decedent acknowledged paternity in a legally recognized manner, such as before a notary public.

  • Stepchildren and foster children: These do not automatically inherit from their caregivers unless they are legally adopted.

  • Children placed for adoption: Children given up for adoption and subsequently adopted by another family will not inherit from their biological parents unless the original adoption decree explicitly preserves their inheritance rights.

Rights of Other Surviving Relatives

In Maine, the intestate succession process dictates how the estate of a single individual without a will and no surviving children or descendants is distributed. This process prioritizes the closest living relatives in a specific order:

  1. Spouses: Should the deceased have a surviving spouse, regardless of any registered partnerships, they inherit the entire estate.

  2. Parents: In the absence of a surviving spouse, if both parents of the deceased are alive, they inherit the entire estate equally.

  3. Siblings: If the deceased had no surviving spouse or parents, their siblings become the heirs. If there are multiple siblings, the estate is divided equally among them.

Estates With No Heirs

Without a will and identifiable family or heirs, the decedent's estate undergoes a legal process known as escheatment. This procedure entails the transfer of all estate assets to the state's unclaimed property holdings, effectively becoming part of the state's public funds.

Alternative options include:

  • State becomes custodian: The state assumes temporary custody of the estate until any potential heirs emerge.

  • Public notice issued: The state may issue public notices seeking rightful heirs for a designated period before proceeding with escheatment.

  • Reversion to specific funds: The escheated assets may be directed to particular public funds, such as education or social welfare programs.

Unique Situations in Maine Inheritance Law

Maine's intestate succession laws outline the distribution of an individual's estate when they die without a valid will. To be eligible for inheritance under these laws, a person must survive the deceased by at least 120 hours or five days.

Under Maine's intestate succession laws, other relatives may inherit if there is no surviving spouse, domestic partner, or children:

  • Immigrants: Regardless of their U.S. citizenship or legal residency status, family members or heirs eligible for inheritance under Maine law will receive their designated share.

  • Posthumous kin: If conceived before the decedent's death and born afterward, these individuals inherit as if they were born during the decedent's lifetime.

  • Half-blood relatives: They inherit as if they were full siblings, sharing both parents. For example, a half-brother sharing the decedent's mother is entitled to an equal share as a full sibling.

  • Advancements: If the deceased gifted property to a relative during their lifetime, the gift's value is deducted from the recipient's share of the intestate estate. This applies only if the recipient acknowledges the gift in writing or the deceased documented the gift at the time.

Does Maine Impose Inheritance and Estate Taxes?

Maine imposes an estate tax, but not an inheritance tax, on the estates of deceased individuals. Any executor of a Maine resident's estate must file an estate tax return if the decedent's gross estate, including taxable gifts made within the previous year, exceeds $6.41 million. For non-residents, the filing threshold rises to $12.41 million, but only if they held property within the state.

The estate tax rate ranges from 8% to 12%, with specific amounts determined using Maine's Estate Tax tables. Non-resident estates pay tax based on a proportional rate calculated by dividing the value of their Maine property by their overall gross estate.

Executors of both resident and non-resident estates must file the Maine estate tax return within nine months of the decedent's death.

Legal Resources Related to Inheritance Law in Maine

Individuals in Maine inheriting from a deceased person can benefit from various legal resources to navigate the probate process, regardless of the presence of a will. These offer clear explanations of the procedures involved and provide access to the necessary forms for efficient estate administration.

Seniors creating or updating their wills may also seek counsel from these organizations, helping themselves make informed decisions regarding their estate plans.

Maine Probate Court

The Maine Probate Court is a comprehensive resource for navigating the state's probate process. It houses the official forms required for all probate court proceedings, ensuring consistency and adherence to legal requirements. For individuals unsure of the appropriate forms for their specific situation, the Probate Court Register in their respective county is ready to assist.

The court also lets you submit probate petitions electronically, making the process faster and easier. Furthermore, it provides a valuable search portal, enabling users to access and retrieve past probate records.

Legal Services for the Elderly

Since its inception in 1974, Legal Services for the Elderly has defended the legal rights of Maine's older citizens. LSE provides free legal services to help people 60 and older who are low-income or facing social barriers. They work to make sure everyone has equal access to justice.

For convenient access to LSE's services, consider these contact points:

  • Helpline for legal advice or information: 1-800-750-5353.

  • Administrative Office for general questions: 207-621-0087.

  • Medicare Part D Appeals Unit for assistance with Medicare Part D plans and prescriptions: 1-877-774-7772.

  • Fax: 207-209-1376.

  • Address: 5 Wabon Street, Augusta, ME, 04330.

University of Maine School of Law Cumberland Legal Aid Clinic

Operating within the University of Maine School of Law, the Cumberland Legal Aid Clinic offers free legal assistance to eligible individuals across Maine. This assistance covers various legal matters, including probate and family law.

To be eligible for CLAC's services, you must meet certain requirements. Potential clients must (1) demonstrate financial need based on established income guidelines, (2) reside within CLAC's designated geographic service area, and (3) coincide with available case openings within the clinic.

Contact Information:

  • Greater Portland area: 207-780-4370.

  • Outside of the Greater Portland area: 877-780-2522.

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