Laws on the Responsibilities for the Deceased in Massachusetts

by Beverly Bird

When someone names you as executor in his will, you have a legal obligation to the decedent’s beneficiaries to handle the estate properly. You also have a moral responsibility to the decedent to ensure his estate is settled according to his wishes. As long as he left a will, these obligations overlap. If he did not leave a will, the decedent has no say in where his property goes. The state of Massachusetts will give it to his most immediate heirs and you have no right to override that if you think he might have wanted it to go to someone else.

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Appointment as Executor or Administrator

Your first obligation to the decedent is to ensure you have the legal right to settle his estate. This means the court must officially appoint you as executor, if he left a will and named you in it, or administrator, if he died without a will. If the will names you as executor, you can take it and an official copy of the death certificate to the probate court and fill out the necessary forms, asking for appointment. If the decedent did not leave a will, you may or may not be able to serve, depending on your relationship to him. Under Chapter 193, Section 1 of the General Laws of Massachusetts, his spouse has the first right to serve. If she does not wish to do so, the court will look to other next of kin. These relatives can “renounce” the position or waive their right to it, so you can serve instead.

Funeral Arrangements

The decedent’s administrator or executor is also responsible for seeing to his funeral arrangements. He might have included directives in his will, in separate documents, or he may have told you what he wanted. You’ll also have to pay the funeral director and associated costs from the estate’s funds.

Safeguarding the Decedent’s Assets

Next, you must safeguard the decedent’s assets. This involves identifying them and making sure insurance coverage is in place for anything of significant value. Massachusetts law requires that you file an inventory report with the court, detailing all the decedent’s assets, within three months of taking office. The decedent might have indicated in his will that he wanted items of sentimental value to go to specific beneficiaries. You can honor his wishes and make partial distribution of these assets before you settle the entire estate, but make sure you get receipts for them from the beneficiaries.

Paying the Decedent’s Debts

You’re also responsible for paying the decedent’s debts and taxes. This means notifying all the decedent’s creditors of his death. Under Massachusetts law, they have one year from the date of death to file claims for payment. You have nine months after the decedent’s death to file all required tax returns, which may include both estate tax returns and income tax returns. At the time of publication, estates valued at $5 million or more must pay federal estate taxes and Massachusetts imposes an estate tax on any estate valued at $1 million or more.

Closing the Estate

After all the decedent’s debts and taxes are paid and after the one-year creditor deadline passes, you can make distribution of the decedent’s remaining assets to his beneficiaries. If he left a will, you can simply follow his directions and honor his wishes. Otherwise, you must distribute his estate according to Massachusetts law. If his spouse is living, and if they had no children, she receives $200,000 off the top of the estate and half of the remainder, with the balance going to his next living relatives. If the decedent did leave children, she does not get the first $200,000 of the estate. She gets half of the overall value with the remaining half going to his children. More distant kin inherit nothing. If he did not leave a surviving spouse, his most immediate living relatives receive the entire estate.