Estate Planning 101

How Long Does Probate Take in Massachusetts?

In this article, we'll cover the topics that impact the length of probate in Massachusetts, including complexity and value of the estate, guardianship, trusts, not having a Will, and claims from creditors or family members.
October 6, 2023

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Understanding the timeline of the probate process is an important aspect of estate planning. In Massachusetts, the duration of probate can vary greatly depending on a number of factors, including the size and complexity of the estate, whether or not the will is contested, and how efficiently the personal representative handles their duties. On average, probate in Massachusetts can take anywhere from several months to over a year. In this blog post, we'll delve into the factors that influence the length of the probate process in Massachusetts and provide some practical tips on how to navigate it efficiently.

The more complex and valuable the estate, the longer things are likely to take:

As is the case in other states, the complexity and value of an estate can significantly affect the duration of the probate process in Massachusetts. This is due to several factors, including the types and quantities of assets involved, the presence of creditors, tax obligations, and potential disputes among beneficiaries.

Property, in particular, can drastically impact the timeline. For instance, if the deceased owned real estate in multiple locations, each property may need to be probated separately in its respective jurisdiction. This can add significant time and complexity to the process.

Moreover, certain types of property, such as businesses, can also complicate matters. If the deceased owned a business, additional steps may be necessary to value the business, transfer ownership, or even sell it. These steps can be time-consuming and may require specialized legal and financial expertise.

In Massachusetts, the presence of non-probate assets can also affect the timeline. These are assets that transfer automatically upon death, outside of the probate process. Examples include life insurance policies, retirement accounts, and properties held in joint tenancy. While these assets can help expedite the process, identifying, locating, and managing them can still take time.

If the deceased died “intestate” (that means they didn’t have a will), probate usually takes a lot longer:

When a person dies without a valid will in place, they are said to have died "intestate". In such situations, Massachusetts intestacy laws dictate how the estate is divided, which can significantly lengthen the probate process.

Without a will to provide clear direction, determining who gets what can become a contentious issue among surviving family members. This can lead to legal disputes, which can dramatically slow down the probate process and even result in court intervention.

Additionally, intestacy necessitates the appointment of an administrator for the estate, a role similar to the executor in a will. However, without a will to specify who should take on this role, the court will need to appoint someone. This can be a time-consuming process, particularly if multiple parties express interest in serving as the administrator or if there are disagreements about who is best suited for the role.

If trusts are involved, the process is usually slower:

While trusts are often used as a tool to bypass the probate process, they can, paradoxically, slow down the process when they are part of an estate undergoing probate. This is largely due to the complexities involved in managing and distributing the assets held in the trust.

One of the main reasons why trusts can slow down the probate process is because they often require careful administration. The trustee must manage and distribute the trust's assets in accordance with the trustor's wishes, as outlined in the trust agreement. This can be a time-consuming and complex task, particularly if the trust contains a variety of assets or if the distribution instructions are intricate.

Furthermore, if the trust was not set up correctly or if there are questions about its validity, disputes can arise. These disputes can take a considerable amount of time to resolve, particularly if they end up in court. In extreme cases, the entire trust may even need to be probated, which can significantly extend the timeline.

Matters of guardianship will also slow down the probate process:

When a deceased individual leaves behind minor children, the probate process often becomes more complicated and lengthier. The reason for this is the need to determine and establish guardianship for these minors, a process that can significantly slow down probate proceedings.

In Massachusetts, if a parent passes away and the other parent is already deceased or deemed unfit, a guardian needs to be appointed for any minor children. If the deceased left a will, they likely named a guardian for their children. However, even if a guardian is named in the will, the court still has the final say and must approve the choice of guardian, ensuring it is in the best interest of the children.

If no guardian has been named in a will, or if the deceased died intestate, the court must select a suitable guardian. This can lead to potential disputes if multiple family members or friends wish to be appointed as the guardian. Such disputes can prolong the probate process as the court takes time to review each potential guardian's suitability.

Claims on the estate — either from creditors or other family members — can make things take a lot longer:

When an individual passes away, their estate may be subject to various claims, primarily from creditors and potential heirs. Both types of claims can significantly extend the duration of the probate process.

In Massachusetts, the law requires that the estate remain open for at least one year to allow creditors to present their claims. Even if all other aspects of probate are completed efficiently, this mandatory waiting period can extend the process.

Additionally, claims from family members or other potential heirs can also delay the probate process. Sometimes, long-lost relatives or unexpected heirs may emerge after a person's death, claiming a right to a portion of the estate. Alternatively, family members may dispute the validity of the will, alleging that it was forged, created under undue influence, or that the decedent was not of sound mind when they made it.

Resolving these disputes can take considerable time and may even involve court proceedings. If a will contest goes to trial, it can significantly extend the probate process, sometimes by several years. Even if the dispute is resolved out of court, the negotiations can still add months to the probate timeline.

The Probate Process in Massachusetts:

Understanding the probate process is key to navigating estate planning effectively. In Massachusetts, this process is composed of several distinct stages, each with its own timeline that can fluctuate based on the specific circumstances surrounding the estate. Let's break down each of these steps:

  1. Opening the Estate: The initiation of the probate process comes with filing a petition to open the estate with the appropriate probate court, typically in the county where the decedent resided. During this stage, the will is validated, and an executor or personal representative is appointed to administer the estate. While the time duration for this stage can vary, it typically takes place within the first month following the individual's death. However, more complex cases, especially those where the will is contested or the appointment of an executor is disputed, may extend this timeframe.
  2. Notification of Heirs and Creditors: Once the estate is opened, the personal representative is legally obligated to notify all potential heirs and known creditors of the decedent's death. This process typically takes a few weeks but may extend to a few months depending on the number of parties involved and whether the contact information is readily available.
  3. Inventory and Appraisal: The personal representative must then identify all of the decedent's assets and have them appraised to determine their value. This is a critical step as it affects everything from tax obligations to the distribution of assets among heirs. Depending on the size and complexity of the estate, this process can take several months.
  4. Payment of Debts and Taxes: The personal representative uses the estate's funds to pay off any outstanding debts and taxes. In Massachusetts, creditors have one year from the notification to file claims against the estate. Resolving all claims can take several more months, depending on the number and complexity of the claims.
  5. Distribution of the Remaining Assets: After all debts and taxes have been paid, the personal representative can distribute the remaining assets to the heirs according to the decedent's will or Massachusetts's intestacy laws if there is no will. This process can take a few weeks to a few months, depending on the number of heirs and the types of assets involved.
  6. Closing the Estate: Finally, the personal representative must prepare a final accounting, showing all payments and distributions made from the estate. Once the court approves this accounting, the estate can be officially closed. This final step can take a few weeks to a few months.

What to do if your executor isn’t moving probate along properly:

When you're a beneficiary, it's essential that the probate process moves along efficiently. However, you may find yourself in a situation where the executor of the estate is not fulfilling their duties appropriately. If this is the case, you need to be aware of your rights and the steps you can take to ensure the estate is being handled correctly.

In Massachusetts, as in other states, the executor, also known as the personal representative, has a fiduciary duty to manage the estate in the best interest of the beneficiaries. This includes completing the probate process in a timely and efficient manner. If you believe the executor is not meeting their obligations, you can raise your concerns with the probate court.

The first step is usually to have a discussion with the executor. They may be able to address your concerns directly or provide information that sheds light on the delays. However, if this doesn't resolve the issue, you can file a formal complaint with the probate court.

In your complaint, you'll need to provide evidence of the executor's shortcomings. This might include instances of negligence, mismanagement of estate assets, or failure to communicate important information about the probate process. The court will review your complaint and, if it finds merit, may take several actions.

The court could order the executor to provide a detailed report of their actions and the estate's status. Alternatively, the court might supervise the executor more closely to ensure they fulfill their duties. In extreme cases, where the executor has acted in bad faith or has seriously mismanaged the estate, the court may remove them and appoint a new executor.

It's important to remember that removing an executor is a serious action and typically a last resort. The court will generally only consider this if there's clear evidence of misconduct or inability to perform the required duties.