When someone who doesn’t own a lot of assets passes away, voluntary administration might be an option. It’s basically a simplified version of probate for small estates.
What is Probate?
If the person who passed away (decedent) had only a will or no estate planning at all (no will or trust), it’s likely there are some assets that will need to go through probate. The probate process is a court-supervised proceeding where a will is verified and assets still titled in the name of a decedent are valued, creditors can pursue payments from the estate, and then the remaining assets are distributed according to the will. If the person died without at least having a will, the Massachusetts law of intestacy will determine how the assets are distributed.
Probate can be either formal or informal and can take a long time—possibly 12-18 months. Since it can also be costly, people often do their estate planning with the goal of avoiding probate.
Voluntary Administration Requirements
If a small Massachusetts estate has assets that need to go through probate, it’s possible to do a limited version of probate for small estates called voluntary administration. This path is cheaper, quicker, and less time-consuming than a full probate.
The estate must meet these requirements to qualify for voluntary administration:
- The deceased person must have been a Massachusetts resident at the time of death.
- The estate can’t contain any real estate.
- The assets left by the deceased must be valued at $25,000 or less (one vehicle can be excluded from this). Assets with living beneficiaries (e.g., retirement accounts) and assets that are jointly owned (e.g., joint bank accounts or property with more than one person on the deed) are disregarded.
- 30 days must have passed from the date of death.
- Another probate proceeding can’t be pending, meaning there’s been no petition seeking probate of the will or an effort to file for an appointment of a personal representative.
- The person who tries to start the legal process (the petitioner) must be 18 years of age or older and an interested person, such as a surviving spouse, children, heirs at law (if there’s no will, these are people who are entitled to receive the deceased person’s property under the intestacy succession ), or devisees (people named in a will to inherit real estate). The petitioner doesn’t have to be a resident of Massachusetts. If the interested person is a minor, the minor’s parents may NOT file on behalf of the minor without prior court authority.
The petitioner has to file certain things with the court like the will (if there is one), a form, a list of heirs, the death certificate, and a list of assets. That person is then appointed the voluntary personal representative who needs to manage the process of pulling together the assets and their value, paying debts, and distributing the remaining assets. The voluntary personal representative will be personally liable for any mistakes in the administration of the decedent’s estate. More information is available online in the MUPC Estate Administration Procedural Guide.
Example of Voluntary Administration
Let’s talk about an example where voluntary administration could be used to probate a small estate. Charlie and Lois are married and have no children. After Charlie passes away, Lois looks at what is considered Charlie’s estate. There’s no will. There’s a bank account, but both Lois and Charlie are joint account holders, so Lois legally becomes the sole owner of that money. There’s an insurance policy for $10,000 that has Lois as the beneficiary, so that money will go directly to her. Lois also finds $10,000 of stock in Charlie’s name with no beneficiaries listed for the stock. Since that $10,000 is the total value of the estate, Lois can file a voluntary administration. Once the voluntary statement is certified by the court, Lois can transfer the stocks to herself.
Voluntary administration can be a good option to probate small estates. If you find yourself in the position of having to go through the full probate process, you may want to have an experienced Massachusetts probate lawyer by your side. We know the ins and outs of probate and can help you through what can be a lengthy process. Contact us today to schedule a confidential, no-cost consultation.