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Massachusetts Inheritance Laws

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Benjamin Franklin said rightly in his declaration that nothing is certain except death and taxes. Indeed, inheritances and related laws in Massachusetts can be complex and challenging for surviving family members.

Massachusetts, one of the wealthiest states, is no exception. 

However, inheritance issues affect estates of all sizes, not just wealthy ones. A sudden death with no will can create significant challenges, even for middle-income families. According to CNBC, many Americans — 67% of the population — do not have wills. However, even families with wills may still face problems if the will is outdated. 

For example, in a 2015 case at the Worcester Division's Probate and Family Court. The husband died without updating his will for his second wife. This left the surviving spouse and the husband’s children from the first marriage locked in a court battle over the estate the deceased left behind.

Resolving inheritance issues often requires the assistance of an attorney. As a result, families and individuals should consider consulting a local attorney

This article serves as an overview of Massachusetts inheritance laws with the aim of educating Bay Staters.

What Happens if Someone Dies With a Will in Massachusetts?

When someone in Massachusetts dies, their will has to be submitted to their county’s Probate and Family Court. This is done to check if the will is valid, meaning the terms of the will are acceptable and will be recognized.

Generally, a will affects assets whose ownership is in the name of the deceased. It has no bearing on any other assets that the deceased co-owned with others, such as a spouse.

What is a Valid Will?

Under Massachusetts General Law, the following is necessary for a will to be considered valid:

Requirement

Details

Additional considerations

Age

The testator must be 18 years old.

-

Writing

The will must be in written form, which may include handwriting. 

Oral wills are valid only if the testator is a seafarer or on active military duty.

Signature

The testator must sign the will. If the testator is unable to sign, an authorized person must do so in the testator's presence. 

The authorized person must not be a witness.

Witnesses

There must be two disinterested witnesses who will sign the will.

-

A will need not be notarized to be legal. However, notarizing it will speed things up when it passes through the court.

Additional Conditions

 The following requirements have to be fulfilled or present to avoid validity issues:

  • Language - The will must contain language that conveys the transfer of the assets to another person or persons. It can contain words such as "bequeath," "bestow," "transfer," or "give." If it only lists the properties, it may not be deemed valid.

  • Mental capacity - The testator must be of sound mind and body. They must also:

  • Be free from undue influence or coercion;

  • Comprehend the will’s contents;

  • Generally understand the nature of the assets and to whom they are given.

Contesting a Will

Those who want to challenge a will must be legally allowed to do so. But first, they must be an “interested person,” or someone who stands to inherit or be affected by the will. They can be the decedent’s:

  • Spouse;

  • Children;

  • Immediate family members.

  • Relatives;

  • Other beneficiaries;

  • Legal heirs;

  • Estate creditors.

Interested persons who want to challenge the will must respond to the notice, called a citation, the court issued when the will was submitted. They can do so by filing a Notice of Appearance within the deadline specified in the citation. Additionally, these persons must also file an Affidavit of Objections in court 30 days before the deadline.

Simply believing you deserve to inherit or should have gotten more is not enough to contest a will. You must have a valid legal reason Some of these grounds — the first two being the most common — include:

  • Lack of mental capacity - This is an allegation that the testator was not of sound mind when the will was created or changed. Allegations may include insanity, intoxication, dementia, or advanced age. 

  • Undue influence - Persons are said to have undue influence when they manipulate the testator to benefit from the will. These persons are more likely someone around the testator. 

  • Forgery - Forging a will means creating a fake document, making false alterations, or copying signatures. It is considered a felony punishable by up to 10 years of imprisonment. 

  • Fraud - This can happen when someone wants to gain something by intentionally lying to the testator. One example of this is tricking the testator into signing something without knowing it is a will.  

  • Will changes - A will can be changed, updated, or replaced several times within a person’s lifetime. Careless drafting and the existence of different versions can lead to dubious wills.

  • Improper will execution - Not following legal formalities can be grounds to challenge a will. This happens when there are inadequate witnesses or questions about the handwriting’s authenticity and interested parties as witnesses.

There may be some difficulties in meeting legal standards on these grounds. Improperly prepared affidavits may be rejected by the court. There are also deadlines to watch out for. Because of these, interested parties must consult a lawyer in their area to avoid losing the legal opportunity to contest a will. 

After the court accepts the affidavit, the case proceeds similarly to a standard lawsuit.

What Happens if Someone Dies Without a Will in Massachusetts?

When someone dies without a will, they are considered to have died intestate. It usually means the deceased has not set any specific guidelines for how their assets will be legally distributed.

In this case, Massachusetts intestate succession laws are used to determine how the assets will be distributed and to whom. These laws are mostly upheld in the Probate and Family Court.

Who Gets What

Under Massachusetts intestate succession laws, how assets are distributed depends on whether the deceased has children and other close relatives.

The following table presents an overview of various scenarios:


If the deceased left behind:

What happens:

1

Spouse only

Spouse inherits everything; Or
Spouse and the deceased’s parents

2

Children only (and their descendants)

Surviving children only (and their descendants) inherit everything

3

Spouse and children from the marriage only

Spouse only inherits everything

Spouse and children and…

Not all surviving children of the deceased are from the spouse; Or

The surviving spouse also has surviving children, not from the deceased

Spouse and the deceased’s surviving children inherit everything

4

Parents only

Surviving parents inherit everything

5

Siblings only

Surviving siblings inherit everything

6

Kin

Surviving closest of kin in accordance with the degrees of kinship inherit everything

7

No inheritors

Commonwealth or state-operated veteran’s home if the deceased is a member takes over estate

Common Law Policies

Regarding inheritances, the Bay State also follows common law policies, which have been shaped by court rulings over time. This further means that spouses are not automatically awarded half of the assets from marriage. However, common law places property ownership in the name of the person on the title or by the income used with the purchase. 

Spouses are given the right to claim their rightful share through the court, despite the terms of the will. 

The next sections expound further on various scenarios involving beneficiaries and how much inheritance they can get. 

Spouse’s Share

The amount the spouse inherits depends on whether the deceased has descendants or living parents. Descendants include children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. 

The subsequent table summarizes how much the spouse will inherit if there are other surviving inheritors:

If the deceased has:

What happens:

Surviving parents or relatives but no descendants

Spouse inherits the first $200,000 plus ⅔ of the balance. The rest goes to the deceased parents or relatives.

Surviving children from the marriage with the spouse, and the surviving spouse has children not from the deceased

Spouse inherits $100,000 plus ½ of the balance.

Surviving descendants but not from the marriage with the spouse

Spouse inherits $100,000 plus ½ of the balance.

Eligibility

The surviving spouse is only considered a surviving spouse if they are legally married at the time of the deceased’s death. This further means that ex-spouses and live-in companions do not qualify.

In most cases, it is clear who can be considered the surviving spouse. However, in some situations, it may be tricky. This overview may serve as a guide:

  • Same-sex couples - Spouses from same-sex marriages have the same rights as traditional marriages under both state and federal laws

  • Common-law partners - Massachusetts laws do not recognize common-law marriages, which means a surviving partner under this arrangement is not considered a legal spouse.

  • Legally separated - In this case, the court may decide if the surviving person is qualified as a surviving spouse. The same also applies if there is an unresolved divorce proceeding prior to death. 

Children’s Rights

The rights to inheritance and shares of the deceased’s children depend on legal terms and these factors:

  • how many children there are;

  • whether the deceased is married or not;

  • whether the spouse has children from another relationship.

In general, Massachusetts intestacy laws allow legal children to receive a share of the inheritance. This can be clear at times, but with today’s blended or extended families and other non-traditional setups, many questions may arise. 

Some legal considerations for children’s rights include:

  • Children born outside marriage - If the deceased’s paternity has been established legally, children born outside marriage can receive a share.

  • Adopted children - Legally adopted children can get a share of the inheritance the same as biological children do. On the other hand, the deceased’s biological children, who were placed for adoption by the deceased, will not get an inheritance. 

  • Stepchildren and foster children - These types of children, if not legally adopted, are not automatically awarded any share. 

  • After-born children - Children conceived prior to death will have an inheritance as long as they survive for 120 hours. 

  • Grandchildren - If the deceased’s child is no longer alive, their children can only be given an inheritance. 

The Rights of Other Surviving Relatives

If the deceased dies unmarried and childless, rarely do their assets go to the state. Rather, state laws take into consideration even the remotest relative in the deceased’s family tree. The following may also be considered inheritors:

  • Immigrant relatives - The citizenship or legal status of the relative does not matter. They will be entitled to receive inheritance. 

  • Half-relatives - The law treats half-relatives the same as regular relatives. For example, the deceased’s stepbrother has the right to an inheritance as if he were a regular brother. 

  • After-born relatives - Relatives still in the womb when the deceased dies will be treated as living as long as they survive for 120 hours. This means they are given a share. 

Probate in Massachusetts

Probate is the legal process of distributing someone's estate after they die, whether or not they have a will. It can be long and complex, but simpler procedures may apply to small estates. 

Generally, probate is needed in the following situations:

  • To transfer an asset solely under the name of the deceased;

  • Pay the creditors of the deceased;

  • Determine if the will is valid.

In such cases, consulting a probate attorney can provide valuable guidance through the process.

Types of Probate

Under the Uniform Probate Code, estates in Massachusetts may undergo any of the following types of proceedings: 

  • Informal probate - The proceedings are administered by a court magistrate, but there is less intervention from the court. The estate’s personal representative can freely gather the assets, distribute them to heirs, and pay off creditors. The estate is considered closed when the personal representative files a sworn statement that all necessary steps required by the court have been completed. 

  • Formal probate - This process is needed to resolve disputes among family members and beneficiaries. It is administered by a court judge, who must decide on any petitions submitted by interested persons and the personal representative. 

  • Late and limited formal probate - This procedure is considered if the estate has not undergone any proceedings within three years after death. It constitutes an appointment proceeding or formal testacy to determine the ownership of probated assets. 

  • Voluntary administration - When an estate has minimal assets and no real estate properties, it can undergo the simplified process of voluntary administration. It applies whether or not there is a will. 

Informal and formal types of probate are initiated upon the testator’s death, but they must not be brought to court more than three years after death. In some cases, the three-year deadline does not apply to:

  • Voluntary administration;

  • The process of determining heirs;

  • “Ancillary probate,” which happens if the deceased owns out-of-state properties.

Non-Probate Assets

The deceased’s assets, which already have beneficiaries assigned to them, can be inherited directly without the court’s assistance. 

Non probate assets include jointly owned accounts, living trusts, pay-on-death bank accounts, life insurance payouts, and IRAs. Real estate and vehicles that have transfer-upon-death arrangements can be given to beneficiaries directly.

Resolving Inheritance Disputes

Disputes involving inheritance can be resolved through litigation or alternative methods. Litigating the case in court takes time, is costly, and can deplete an estate’s funds. For instance, creditors are given up to a year to file their claim against the deceased’s estate in formal probate.

In most cases, though, probate issues are resolved through negotiations.

Additionally, Probate and Family Courts in the Commonwealth offer an array of litigation-alternative methods, including mediation, conciliation, and arbitration. It has on-site dispute intervention services overseen by the Office of the Commissioner of Probation. These free services, which may be required by a judge to resolve a case, help parties iron out their disagreements. 

Does Massachusetts Impose Inheritance and Estate Taxes?

Massachusetts does not impose inheritance taxes. Rather, the state enforces its own estate taxes, which are charged to the deceased’s assets before they are inherited. The levy is triggered when the value exceeds the limits.

Due to 2023 updates to Massachusetts estate tax laws, the value limit is now pegged at $2 million, an improvement from the $1 million limit before, with some important caveats:

  • Estates worth $2 million or below have credit up to $99,600.

  • Estates valued above $2 million have reduced taxes compared to before. 

Note that in the Bay State, the estate tax applies to the whole estate value, not the amount that exceeds the limits. For example, if an estate’s worth is $10 million, the amount taxed is the whole $10 million and not the $8 million that topped the limit. 

Other Tax Requirements

In addition to the above-mentioned tax requirements, there are other tax considerations required by Massachusetts inheritance and federal laws. These include:

  • The deceased’s final individual state and federal income tax returns, which are due on Tax Day of the year after death;

  • The estate’s or trust’s federal income tax return, which is due on Tax Day of the year after death;

  • Federal estate tax return for estates exceeding $12.06 million as of 2022.

Legal Resources Related to Inheritance Law in Massachusetts

Massachusetts Court System’s Guide on Estates

A comprehensive online resource has been collated by the state’s courts. Interested persons can find out more about estate administration procedures, the required legal forms, and the schedule of court-related fees. If they are unable to find the information, they can contact a law librarian. They can also contact a Court Service Center online, by phone, or visit it in person.

American Bar Association’s Probate Guide

This guide helps grieving families understand the basics of the probate process and what to watch out for. It only serves as a general overview and is not especially tailored to Massachusetts’ laws.  

Massachusetts Bar Association

The State Bar delivers informational programs and services to communities. It has a Lawyer Referral System that connects clients to lawyers in their area. Its Elder Law Education program addresses concerns involving probate and healthcare proxies. The MassBar also hosts a  Dial-A-Lawyer free service every first Wednesday of the month from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. To use the service, call (877) 686-0711 or (617) 338-0610. 

Massachusetts Legal Aid Organizations

Various regional and community organizations render legal assistance to income-eligible residents in the Commonwealth. The Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation lists these organizations by town and their contact info. Some of these groups include Massachusetts Legal Resource Finder, MassLegalHelp, and Legal Answers Online

IRS Guide on Estate Taxes

On its website, the IRS has added a guide on estate taxes. Personal representatives and other interested individuals may find the guide handy in filing returns and closing estates. They can also find various relevant forms and information on penalties for noncompliance. For tax-related problems, they can turn to a Low Income Taxpayer Clinic in their area. The Taxpayer Advocate Service assists with preparing returns and resolving related issues for eligible individuals.

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