Estate Planning 101

How Long Does an Executor Have to Settle an Estate in Massachusetts

In this article, we'll look at how long an Executor has to settle an estate in Massachusetts. We'll look at the milestones and due dates, as well as factors that impact timelines and how to know when an estate is officially 'settled'.)
October 6, 2023

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Settling an estate, also known as probate, is an essential duty that an executor, or personal representative, must undertake following the death of a loved one. In Massachusetts, this involves a series of steps including validating the deceased's will, cataloging their assets, paying off any debts and taxes, and eventually, distributing the remaining assets to the beneficiaries. Given the complexity and importance of these tasks, a common question often arises: how long does an executor have to settle an estate in Massachusetts? While the exact timeline can differ based on various factors, it typically takes anywhere from several months to over a year to fully settle an estate.

The Estate Settlement Timeline:

Settling an estate in Massachusetts involves several stages, each with its own general timeline. Here, we'll break down each stage to provide a clearer understanding of how long the entire process might take:

  1. Submitting the Will: The first step in the probate process is for the executor to submit the will to probate court. In Massachusetts, there is no specific deadline for this, but it is generally advisable to do so within 30 days of the testator's (the person who made the will) death to prevent unnecessary delays.
  2. Inventorying the Estate: After the will has been submitted, the executor must compile a comprehensive inventory of the deceased's assets. This includes real estate, personal belongings, bank accounts, investments, and any other assets of value. Depending on the size and complexity of the estate, this process can take anywhere from several weeks to a few months. The executor is typically given three months from the date of their appointment to submit this inventory to the court in Massachusetts.
  3. Communicating with Creditors: Once the inventory has been completed, the executor is then responsible for notifying all known creditors of the deceased's death. In Massachusetts, creditors generally have a period of one year from the date of death to file claims against the estate.
  4. Paying Debts and Taxes: After the creditors have been notified, the executor must then pay off any valid claims from the estate's assets. This also includes settling any final income taxes or estate taxes owed. Depending on the number of claims and the state of the deceased's financial affairs, this step can take several months to over a year.
  5. Distributing the Remaining Assets: The final step in the estate settlement process is distributing the remaining assets to the beneficiaries as specified in the will. This can only be done once all debts and taxes have been paid. If there are no disputes among the beneficiaries, this step can be completed relatively quickly, often within a few weeks.

Keep in mind, these timelines are estimates and can vary based on individual circumstances. For instance, if a will is contested, the probate process can be significantly delayed. Additionally, if the estate is particularly large or complex, it may take longer to inventory and distribute the assets. Therefore, while the executor has a duty to settle the estate as efficiently as possible, it's important to understand that the process often requires a significant amount of time and patience.

How Do You Know When an Estate is Settled:

An estate is considered settled once several key tasks have been completed: the will has been submitted to probate court, the estate has been thoroughly inventoried, all creditors have been notified and paid, any taxes owed have been settled, and the remaining assets have been distributed according to the will. Beneficiaries should receive a final accounting from the executor, which is a document detailing all of the financial transactions made on behalf of the estate.

In Massachusetts, once this final accounting is reviewed and approved by the probate court, the executor can file a “petition for discharge”, thereby officially releasing them from their duties. Upon approval of this petition, the estate is officially considered settled. This final confirmation ensures beneficiaries that the estate settlement process has been completed.

What to Do If You Think The Executor Is Taking Too Long:

While the probate process can indeed be lengthy, there may be instances where an executor is not fulfilling their duties in a timely or efficient manner. If you, as a beneficiary, have concerns about this, you do have recourse. Start by communicating your concerns with the executor – they may be able to provide a reasonable explanation for the delays. If communication doesn't resolve the issue, you have the right to request an accounting of the estate - a report detailing the financial actions taken by the executor on behalf of the estate.

If you're still unsatisfied after these steps, Massachusetts law allows beneficiaries to petition the probate court for the removal and replacement of an executor who is not adequately performing their duties. This should be considered a last resort, as it can further complicate and delay the estate settlement process. It is always recommended to consult with an estate planning attorney before taking this action.