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The Heritage Law Center, LLC Blog

Beneficiary Rights in Massachusetts

POSTED ON: October 17, 2023

One part of creating an estate plan is to determine who will receive your assets when you pass away. A beneficiary is a person, charity, or other organization that receives money or property because someone specifically named them in their will or trust.

If you’ve been named a primary beneficiary in a will or trust (first person in line to receive a distribution), you have a legal right to those assets after the person who created the estate plan passes away. Here’s some important information that you should know about beneficiary rights in the state of Massachusetts.

Beneficiary Rights for a Will

You have the right to see a copy of the will. If you’re named as a beneficiary in a will, you have the right to see the will so you know exactly what you’re legally entitled to. The personal representative (executor) should share a copy of the will with you. If that doesn’t happen, since a will goes through probate, it becomes available to the public. Just contact the clerk’s office at the probate court in the county where the decedent lived and request a copy of the will. You can search here to locate the correct probate court:

After the will is probated, you have the right to receive property in a timely manner. However, probate takes longer than many people may think. The general rule is that an estate has to be probated within three years of when the decedent died. Probate is a court process that includes verifying the will, designating a personal representative, allowing claims from creditors to be filed against the estate, and finally distributing the remaining assets to the beneficiaries. This process can take a long time, possibly as long as 12-18 months. The estate has to stay open for a year from the date of death so creditors can make their claims. Because of this, the earliest a complete distribution of the estate can be done is a year after the date of death.

You have the right to petition for the removal of a personal representative if they aren’t fulfilling their duties responsibly. The personal representative must gather assets, determine their value, pay any outstanding debts, locate beneficiaries, and maintain a general accounting of the estate. A personal representative must follow Massachusetts laws and the terms set out in the deceased person’s will.

Personal representatives are fiduciaries, meaning they have the duty to act in good faith, with honesty, loyalty, and in the best interests of the estate’s beneficiaries. They are liable for any losses that result from an action they take in bad faith, mismanagement of trust assets, or any breach of their fiduciary duty. As a beneficiary, if you believe the personal representative isn’t performing their duties in the best interest of the estate, you have the right to petition the probate court to remove them.

You should know that it’s possible that estate debts might reduce your inheritance. The estate’s beneficiaries only get paid once all the creditor claims have been satisfied. Usually, estate administration fees, probate costs, funeral expenses, support payments, and taxes have priority over other claims. Once those expenses have been paid out of the estate, the remaining assets will be distributed to the beneficiaries. In some cases, it’s possible that those expenses might reduce the amount of assets the decedent left to their loved ones.

Beneficiary Rights for a Trust

You have the right to receive timely distributions as stated in the trust. Since there are different kinds of trusts, many ways a trust can be written, and various techniques to set up the distribution of the assets, it’s important for you to read the trust and understand exactly what assets you’re legally entitled to get and when.

You have the right to be reasonably informed about what’s in the trust and any trust activity. According to Massachusetts trust law, a trustee has to provide their name and address via first-class mail to the trust beneficiaries within 30 days of taking control of the trust. You have the right to receive an annual accounting of the trust (either formal or informal), including income, expenses, and distributions. Trustees must reply to a beneficiary’s request for information regarding the trust’s administration and notify beneficiaries when the trust is terminated.

You have the right to hold a trustee accountable if they don’t fulfill their fiduciary duty. Trustees must follow the trust’s terms and act in the best interest of the beneficiaries. Their duties include locating and protecting trust assets, investing assets prudently, distributing assets to beneficiaries, keeping track of income and expenses, and filing taxes. If a trustee breaches their fiduciary duty, the beneficiary can sue the trustee. Examples of a breach of fiduciary duty can include the trustee prioritizing their personal interests over those of the trust beneficiaries, misusing trust funds, favoring certain beneficiaries over others, or failing to disclose important information.

Massachusetts law doesn’t directly state it but typically a copy of the trust, or at least the portions relevant to the beneficiary, would be provided as part of duty to inform. So, if a beneficiary requests a copy, one should be provided by the trustee.

There’s a lot to know about estate planning. We’re here to make estate planning easier for our clients. That includes working with them to help them choose the right person to be their personal representative or trustee—someone who is responsible, organized, and honest. By choosing the best people for these positions, you set your estate planning up to work well for your beneficiaries. If you’re ready to partner with us and put an estate plan in place or update an existing plan, contact us today for a free consultation.