By Linda T. Cammuso
The passing of the new Massachusetts Uniform Probate Code should prompt Massachusetts residents to evaluate whether and how their estate plans may be impacted by the new law.
After two decades of debate, the new Massachusetts Uniform Probate Code (MUPC) finally became effective in its entirety on March 31, 2012. The MUPC is designed to simplify, streamline, and clarify the process of settling a decedent’s affairs in a manner consistent with the decedent’s intent. This major legislation brings significant changes to the probate process and procedures. It increases uniformity with other states,* eases the administration of probate matters for judges and court personnel and reduces delays in the estate settlement process.
(* To date, 18 states have adopted the Uniform Probate Code, including states in which many Massachusetts residents own property, such as Florida and Maine.)
The MUPC revises the rules of “intestate distribution,” which is how one’s estate is distributed when one dies without a will. This new law especially impacts “blended” families (i.e., second marriages where the spouses may have children from prior unions and may have children together).
Terminology has also been streamlined. Previously, probate forms and terminology were different for those who died with a will (testate) and for those who passed without one (intestate). The confusing distinction between Executor and Administrator is gone; the term now used to identify the person appointed by the court to manage the estate is Personal Representative.
The following comparisons of the old and new rules of intestate distribution illustrate the significance of the changes:
Under the former law, if a person died without a will and was survived by a spouse:
• If the decedent had descendants (children or grandchildren), the surviving spouse took only half the estate, and the descendants took the remaining half.
• If the decedent had no descendants, the surviving spouse took the first $200,000, and then split the remainder with the decedent’s heirs at law (blood relatives).
Under the new law, for intestate estates with surviving spouses:
• If the decedent is not survived by parents or descendents, the surviving spouse takes the entire estate. There is an exception, though: If the surviving spouse has descendants from a prior relationship (i.e., not of the decedent), the surviving spouse takes the first $100,000 plus half the remaining estate, and the other half goes to the decedent’s nearest heirs at law (blood relatives).
• If the decedent is survived by descendents, the surviving spouse takes the entire estate. The exception to this rule is: If any of the descendants are not common to the decedent and the surviving spouse (i.e., either the decedent or the surviving spouse has descendants from a prior relationship), the surviving spouse takes the first $100,000 plus half the remaining estate, and the decedent’s descendants take the other half.
Although the MUPC does not invalidate a current will, the new terminology, changes to the legal interpretation of certain will provisions and the new MUPC inheritance rules (for wills that point to default intestacy schemes, by way of example) may call for revisions to existing wills. Additionally, the new MUPC rules of how marriage and divorce affect existing wills may bring about unintended consequences.
The bottom line is that if you’re not sure whether or how your estate plan is affected, have it reviewed by an estate planning attorney. At Estate Preservation Law Offices, we are pleased to conduct this analysis at no cost.