What Happens If You Die Without a Will in Massachusetts?

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Did you know that Alexander Graham Bell made the first telephone call in Boston, Massachusetts? Massachusetts is the home to many firsts in the United States, including the first lighthouse, the first subway, and the first public school.

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It's no wonder so many people choose to call Massachusetts home and live out their lives here. When a person dies in Massachusetts, what happens next will be determined by whether or not the person had a will. 

A will is a legal document that directs how a person wants to dispose of their property after death. A will can be a helpful end-of-life planning tool. However, whether a person needs a will is a personal decision. If you are wondering if you need a will, keep reading. Here we will discuss what will happen if you die without a will. 

Massachusetts's Intestacy Laws Explained

If a person dies without a will, they are said to have died intestate. If a person dies intestate, the state's laws where they reside determine who will get their property. These laws are called intestacy laws. If a person dies in Massachusetts, the intestacy laws will determine who will inherit their property. 

Before we begin discussing intestacy laws, you must understand certain legal terms that we may use. These terms include the following:

  • "Descendants" refers to "all of such individual's descendants of all generations.” This includes a person's child, grandchild, great-grandchild, etc.
  • The "decedent" is the deceased person.
  • The estate includes the property of the deceased.
  • Heirs include the "surviving spouse and the commonwealth, who are entitled under the statutes of intestate succession to the property of a decedent.”

Now that you understand basic estate terms, we can begin discussing probate in Massachusetts.

How Does Probate Work in Massachusetts If There Is No Will?

Probate is when the deceased's estate is administered through the courts. It's how debts are paid, and the title of ownership is transferred.

Keep in mind that not all property is subject to probate. Some property does not need to go through probate to transfer title/ownership. Property that does not need to go through probate includes the following:

  • Jointly held property where there is a right of survivorship.
  • Proceeds from a life insurance policy, bank, or retirement account that names a beneficiary. 
  • Property that's held in a trust created by the decedent.

During probate, the court will appoint a personal representative. The personal representative has many responsibilities, including the following:

  • Collecting the estate property
  • Paying the deceased's creditors
  • Filing and paying the deceased's taxes
  • Managing the estate property
  • Transferring the estate property to heirs
  • Closing the estate

A court will appoint a personal representative based on priority. Priority means that a person has a right to take precedent over others who may want the role. If a person dies intestate, "[t]he person with legal priority is the surviving spouse. If the decedent wasn't married when they died, the decedent's heirs have legal priority.”

The role of personal representative is not to be taken lightly. Before you accept the role of personal representative, you must understand all of the responsibilities and be able to fulfill them adequately. If you have concerns about being a personal representative, you can either decline the role or contact an experienced probate attorney. A probate attorney can address your concerns and may even be able to help you fulfill your duties.

Three types of probate

In Massachusetts, "there are 3 [three] types of probate and a simplified process called voluntary administration.” The three types of probate are as follows:

  • Informal probate is a faster probate process. It is an administrative proceeding that "is processed by a Massachusetts Uniform Probate Code (MUPC) Magistrate instead of a judge.”
  • Formal probate allows for court hearings. A judge will hear any issues.
  • Late and limited formal probate may be necessary for certain reasons, including the petition's timing. 

If you have questions about the right probate type for your loved one's estate, you should contact an experienced probate attorney. The attorney can answer your questions and help you navigate the probate process.

Voluntary administration

Voluntary administration is a "simplified process for an estate with few assets and no real estate.” An estate must meet specific requirements to be eligible for voluntary administration. Notably, "[t]he decedent must have left an estate that consists entirely of personal property valued at $25,000 or less (excluding the value of a car).” To initiate the process, an interested person must fill out a form and then submit the form and fees to the appropriate probate court.

Who Typically Inherits Assets in Massachusetts If There Isn't a Will?

Inheritance can be confusing, especially if there isn't a will. Massachusetts intestacy laws will determine who inherits assets if there isn't a will. The main factors that influence who inherits are whether or not the deceased had a surviving spouse and/or descendants. 

Surviving Spouse

In Massachusetts, the surviving spouse inherits the entire estate if:

  • No descendant or parent of the deceased survive.
  • All of the deceased surviving descendants are also descendants of the surviving spouse, and there is no other descendant of the surviving spouse who survives the decedent.

Otherwise, the surviving spouse inherits as follows:

  • The first $200,000, plus three-fourths of any balance of the intestate estate, if no descendant of the decedent survives the decedent, but a parent of the decedent survives the decedent.
  • The first $100,000 plus one-half of any balance of the intestate estate, if all of the decedent's surviving descendants are also descendants of the surviving spouse and the surviving spouse has one or more surviving descendants who are not descendants of the decedent.
  • The first $100,000 plus one-half of any balance of the intestate estate if one or more of the decedent's surviving descendants are not descendants of the surviving spouse.

Heirs other than surviving spouse

Now that you know what the surviving spouse will get, you might be wondering what the other heirs can inherit. Like the surviving spouse, what the other heirs inherit depends on who survives the deceased.

Under Massachusetts law, "[a]ny part of the intestate estate not passing to the decedent's surviving spouse" or "the entire intestate estate if there is no surviving spouse, passes in the following order to the individuals designated below who survive the decedent:”

  • The deceased's descendants "per capita" at each generation. Per capita means "by the head," which means the inheritance is split evenly amongst any entitled surviving heirs by generation.
  • If there are no surviving descendants, everything gets split equally between the deceased's parents if both are alive, or to the one surviving parent if one has already passed.
  • If there is no surviving descendants or parents, everything goes to the descendants of the deceased’s parents (i.e., your siblings) split evenly amongst any entitled surviving heirs by generation.
  • If there are no surviving descendants, parents, or siblings, then your estate will be split equally between the next of kin in equal degree. If there are two or more descendants of a common ancestor in equal degree who are making claims through different ancestors, those claiming through the nearest ancestor shall be preferred to those claiming through an ancestor more remote. For example, if you die and you don’t have any surviving spouse, parents, children, or siblings, your estate could pass to cousins. If you have two cousins trying to claim your estate, the cousin who was related to you through the nearest ancestor is preferred.

Figuring out who gets what can become difficult as estates and familial relationships become more complicated. If you have questions about who should inherit assets from a loved one's estate, you should contact a probate attorney immediately. The attorney can advise you regarding inheritance rights in Massachusetts. 

Frequently Asked Questions: Dying Without a Will in Massachusetts

Everyone approaches life and death differently. Some people think they have all the answers, while others are content to ask lots of questions. If you are the latter, then this next section is for you. Below we will answer frequently asked questions about dying without a will in Massachusetts. 

What happens when your parent dies without a will?

The loss of a parent can be a difficult experience. If your parent dies without a will, the question that you may find yourself asking is, "What happens now?" 

If your parent dies without a will in Massachusetts, Massachusetts intestacy laws will determine what happens. Keep in mind that what happens will largely depend on the following: 

  • The complexity of the estate
  • Your familial relationships
  • Whether or not your parent had a surviving spouse

If your parent dies without a will, their estate will most likely go through some form of probate. If your parent dies without a surviving spouse and you have no siblings, you will inherit the entire estate.

What are a surviving spouse's rights if there's no will?

If there's no will, a surviving spouse's rights are determined by whether or not there are descendants and/or parents of the deceased. If there are neither descendants nor parents of the deceased, the surviving spouse will inherit the entire estate. Other scenarios are discussed above. The surviving spouse's rights include the right of first priority to be the personal representative. 

If you are concerned about your rights as a spouse, then you should consult with an estate planning attorney. An estate planning attorney can address your concerns and advise how to best protect your rights. 

Are there any probate exemptions if you die without a will in Massachusetts?

If you die without a will in Massachusetts, certain probate exemptions exist. Notably, your surviving spouse is entitled to the following from the estate, not exceeding $10,000:

  • Household furniture
  • Automobiles
  • Furnishings
  • Appliances
  • Personal effects

If there is no surviving spouse, "the decedent's children are entitled jointly to the same value.” These exemptions are in addition to any benefits passing by intestate succession. 

Who is considered next of kin in Massachusetts?

Next of kin is generally used to refer to a person's closest living relative. If you die, your next of kin are those most closely related to you who are entitled to inherit your property.

Massachusetts has a publically available next of kin chartto help you identify your next of kin. According to the next of kin chart, "[d]egrees of kinship are used to identify heirs at law in the

'next of kin' category ONLY if there are no members in the first four groups of heirs." The first four groups of heirs.” The first four groups of heirs include the following:

  1. Surviving spouse
  2. Children and their descendants
  3. Parents
  4. Brothers/sisters and their descendants

Figuring out who is next of kin can become more complex as you dive into a person's family tree. If you have questions about kinship, you should contact an estate planning attorney who can walk you through the degrees of kinship. 

Take Your First Steps Toward End-of-Life Planning 

Massachusetts is the first state for so many important events in United States history. Now is the time to make Massachusetts the first state where you took your first steps toward end-of-life planning. 

End-of-life planning doesn't have to be complicated. You have resources at your fingertips to make end-of-life planning possible right now. A great first step would be to create an account with the Cake website. Cake is an end-of-life planning website designed to assist adults with proactive planning. 

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