What Must Be Filed for a Decedent in Massachusetts?

by Beverly Bird

Probate usually involves a great deal of paperwork and the process in Massachusetts is no exception. Between state probate court and the federal government, several documents are required. Some are merely procedural while others are more complex. When probate is not necessary because the decedent used a trust to convey his assets, or because all his assets transfer to named beneficiaries, filing requirements are much simpler and may involve only deeds and tax returns.

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Opening Probate

If the decedent named an executor in his will, that person must file an application with the probate court to request official appointment and permission to open probate. In Massachusetts, this is a “Probate of Will With/Without Sureties,” and the executor must submit a certified copy of the death certificate and original will with the filing. Sureties relate to whether the decedent requires his executor to post bond -- an insurance policy against errors or wrongdoing. If the decedent did not leave a will, the individual who wishes to probate his estate must file a petition for “Administration With/Without Sureties.” This also opens probate and grants permission for the person applying to oversee the process.

Probate Proceedings

If the decedent owned assets that require transfer of title because they were not placed in a trust, probate is required in Massachusetts. This is true regardless of whether he left a will and requires the executor or administrator of the estate to file several more documents. She must prepare a list of all the decedent’s property with a value assigned to each item. She must file this inventory with the court within three months of submitting the will for probate. If she discovers she will have to sell any real estate the decedent owned in order to raise money to pay his debts and taxes, she must request permission to do so by filing a “Sale of Real Estate” form with the court. Because Massachusetts imposes an estate tax, the state places an automatic lien against a decedent's property until those taxes are paid. Therefore, the executor must also file a request for the state to release the lien so she can sell the real estate. When probate is complete, she must file a final accounting with the court listing all transactions she made on behalf of the estate.


If the decedent’s assets include real estate, the executor must file new deeds, transferring each property from the name of the decedent into the name of the beneficiary. In Massachusetts, deeds are recorded with the Registry of Deeds in the county where the property is located. If the decedent held property with another individual as joint tenants with rights of survivorship, the property automatically transfers into the sole name of the other owner without the necessity of probate. However, she must must notify the Registry of Deeds of the death by filing a copy of the deed with the death certificate.

Tax Returns

Someone -- usually the executor of the estate -- must also take responsibility for filing tax returns on behalf of the decedent, both with the Internal Revenue Service and state of Massachusetts. If the decedent earned income during his last year of life, personal income tax returns must be filed by April 15 of the year following his death. If his estate earned any income, estate income tax returns must be filed as well, and if estate taxes are due, these returns must also be filed. The executor or administrator of the estate usually has nine months from the date of death to prepare and file these estate returns and pay any taxes due. When this is accomplished, she will receive a closing letter from the IRS, allowing her to settle the estate. She must file a copy of this letter with the Massachusetts Estate Tax Bureau.