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It is hard to lose a loved one. In addition to the emotional loss, relatives must deal with the practical considerations of settling the deceased’s affairs. Where death was caused through the fault of another, the decedent’s relatives may also need to quickly decide whether or not to pursue a claim for wrongful death against the party responsible for the death.

commerce-acts-books-477966-mIn a prior blog we discussed the Massachusetts wrongful death statute, M.G.L. c. 229, §2; including who may benefit from a wrongful death claim. A claim for wrongful death does not belong to the decedent or the decedent’s estate. The beneficiaries of a wrongful death claim are relatives of the decedent who may seek “compensation for the loss of the reasonably expected net income, services, protection, care, assistance, society, companionship, comfort, guidance, counsel and advice of the decedent.” In Massachusetts, however, an action for wrongful death is not maintained by the beneficiaries; it must be commenced and maintained by the duly appointed personal representative of the decedent’s estate.

A party who wishes to pursue a wrongful death action has two time limits to keep in mind: (1) the deadline by which the wrongful death action must be commenced; and (2) the time limit for petitioning the Probate and Family Court for the appointment of a personal representative of the decedent’s estate.

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“The wheels of justice turn slowly, but grind exceedingly fine.” Litigation is often a lengthy process and the old proverb is certainly true for the inundated Massachusetts courts. In 2017 close to 7,000 cases have been filed in the Superior Courts of Essex County and Middlesex County alone. It comes as no surprise that litigation can languish for years before a case is resolved.

commerce-acts-books-477966-mWith the Court backlog and typical litigation delays there are more and more instances where an injured party (Plaintiff in a tort lawsuit) may pass away before the case reaches trial and is resolved at the appellate level. When a tort Plaintiff dies before the case ends, what happens to the personal injury claim? Under Massachusetts statute and common law, certain actions survive the death of the claimant. For example, Massachusetts common law allows contract actions to automatically survive the death of a claimant; however, personal injury claims do not. Personal injury actions are defined as “survival actions” under M.G.L. c. 228 §1, which provides that survival actions include:

“Actions of tort (a) for assault, battery, imprisonment or other damage to the person; (b) for consequential damages arising out of injury to the person and consisting of expenses incurred by a husband, wife, parent or guardian for medical, nursing, hospital or surgical services in connection with or on account of such injury; (c) for goods taken or carried away or converted; or (d) for damage to real or personal property…”

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The average number of years that a person may expect to live has substantially increased over the past 25 years. Also, the life expectancy of a person now is 25 years longer than it was 100 years ago. Decreased infant mortality, improved living conditions, reductions in poverty levels and gains in medical treatment have resulted in increased longevity for humankind, benefiting a broad spectrum of  people of all race, gender and ethnicity.

commerce-acts-books-477966-mReviewing records starting with the 20th century discloses that the world is seeing fewer deaths at older and older ages. The National Institute on Aging report puts this in stark terms: “The 85-and-over population is projected to increase 351 percent between 2010 and 2050, compared to a 188 percent increase for the population aged 65 or older and a 22 percent increase for the population under age 65.”

According to Thomas Perls, a geriatrician at Boston Medical Center and professor at Boston University School of Medicine, “Getting to about 110 is really approaching the limit of the human lifespan,” and the oldest documented human life is 120 years.

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According to a recent article published by ABC News, Americans “are living longer, in more comfort and in better health than ever before.” With a longer life expectancy, early financial planning has become even more critical to ensure that you will be comfortable and taken care of in your retirement. Also, although Americans seem to be healthier than we once were, nursing homes are full of residents and patients.

commerce-acts-books-477966-mThroughout the Commonwealth of Massachusetts there are over 400 nursing homes, with some of the highest ranked facilities here in the North Shore, including the towns of Reading, Saugus, Lynnfield and Peabody. Care at these facilities is expensive and can quickly drain your finances. A 2016 survey by Genworth Financial estimated the median annual cost for a semi-private room in a nursing home in Massachusetts to be more than $135,000.

Most seniors in need of long term healthcare are not able to afford the high costs without assistance. According to a study by the Massachusetts Medicaid Policy Institute, over 60% of residents of nursing facilities rely on MassHealth (the Massachusetts state Medicaid program) benefits to help them pay for long term healthcare.

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Long term healthcare and nursing home care are topics of concern for many with aging parents or grandparents.  A hot-button in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, including the North Shore and towns such as Wakefield, Reading, Lynnfield, and Saugus, is MassHealth (Medicaid) and senior benefits. MassHealth is the government run health insurance plan in MA which combines Medicaid and CHIP (State Children’s Health Insurance Program) into one program. Qualified MassHealth members may be able to get doctor visits, prescription drugs, hospital stays, and many other important services.

commerce-acts-books-477966-m A recent court ruling from the Supreme Judicial Court (the highest court in Massachusetts)   presents some good news in determining qualification for certain benefits under MassHealth that may have an important impact on seniors. Daley v. Secretary of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services (Mass., No. SJC-12200, May 30, 2017) and Nadeau v. Director of the Office of Medicaid (Mass., No. SJC-12205, May 30, 2017).

For seniors to qualify for MassHealth, the general rule is that individuals must have assets of less than $2,000.00; and couples living together less than $3,000.00. This limit often requires individuals and couples to “spend down” or deplete their resources in order to qualify for Medicaid long-term benefits when they enter a nursing home.  One practice has been for seniors to engage in “‘Medicaid planning’ in an attempt to transfer or dispose of assets long before they need long-term care so that, when the need arises, they may satisfy the asset limit and qualify for Medicaid benefits.”  The purpose of Medicaid planning is essentially to give individuals whose assets exceed the aforementioned “limit” and would make them ineligible for long-term care benefits, the opportunity to qualify for Medicaid benefits.  Some transfer their assets to their children or other loved ones to meet the asset threshold and avoid using their own assets to pay for long-term care.  Medicaid rules enacted by Congress impose two restrictions on Medicaid planning, in an effort to prevent individuals from taking advantage of MassHealth benefits.  The first is the “look back” rule, which “imposes a penalty for any asset transfer for less than fair market value made by an individual within five years of the individual’s application for Medicaid benefits”.  For example, if elderly parents convey their home to their children for less than the fair market value.  The “look back” rule provides that if such a transfer were to occur within that five year period, the applicant would be “ineligible for Medicaid benefits for a period of time determined by dividing the value of the transfer by the average monthly cost of the nursing home facility”.

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The importance of estate planning and the benefits of preparing a Will have been discussed in our previous blogs. Proper estate planning and a carefully drafted Will can ensure that your last wishes are carried out as you intend, wish and instruct. But let’s not kid ourselves, facing one’s mortality is hard. Many of us find it difficult to think of the end of our life and estate planning is often on the bottom of the “to do” list. A recent article from reported that nearly six out of ten Americans do not have estate planning documents. This is true across all socio-economic classes.  If you are part of that nearly 60% group of Americans without a Will, what happens to your possessions when you pass away? In Massachusetts, if you pass away without a Will, this is commonly known as dying “intestate”. Any assets or property you own at death will be probated in the county you resided in at date of death (if you lived in Essex County your estate will be probated as intestate in the Essex County Probate Court, if you lived in Middlesex County then it would be in the Middlesex County Probate Court and so on). Distribution of your property would be determined by statute and given to your closest legal heir(s) in a proportion as determined by Massachusetts intestacy law.

commerce-acts-books-477966-mThe Massachusetts intestacy statute is contained in the Massachusetts Uniform Probate Code (the “MUPC”).[1] The MUPC sets forth how your property will be distributed according to the makeup of your surviving family members. Many people believe that the Massachusetts intestacy statute simply divides the property in an estate equally among the surviving relatives, but the determination of “who gets what” is more complicated than that.

If the deceased was married, the portion of the decedent’s estate the decedent’s surviving spouse is entitled to depends on whether or not there are or were children; and in some circumstances, further affected by whether or not the decedent has a surviving parent. If there are no living children and no surviving parents of the deceased, a surviving spouse will get the entire estate. There is a second situation where the surviving spouse gets the entire estate: if all of the children of the decedent are also children of the surviving spouse and the surviving spouse has no other living descendants that are not descendants of the decedent. It gets even more complicated depending on whether or not there is surviving spouse, parents, or children or brothers and sisters of the deceased.  Here are a couple of examples:

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Testamentary Capacity is a legal term “used to describe a person’s legal and mental ability to make or alter a valid Will”.  In order to create a valid and binding Will or Codicil, you must have the requisite testamentary capacity. Throughout the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, including Essex County, Middlesex County or any of the towns and cities here in MA, there are two initial hurdles one must meet to have the testamentary capacity to make a valid Will: 1. be of sufficient age – which is generally 18; and 2. meet the mental capacity threshold; which means to have the ability to know the nature and extent of property, the natural objects of one’s property, the disposition that the Will is making and the ability to connect all of these elements together to form a coherent plan.

commerce-acts-books-477966-mAnother way to say it is one must have the mental ability to understand the nature and purpose of making a Will, have a general idea of what you own and what assets you have, and know who are members of your immediate family or other natural objects of your bounty.

Testamentary capacity requires that you have the ability to understand and to be mindful of the type of property and assets you own as well as who may inherit your property whether you have a Will or do not have a Will.  You are required to be of sound mind and free from any disease or weakness which could influence the way that you choose to dispose of your property. You are also required to have the ability at the time of the execution of the Will to comprehend the nature of the act of making a Will.  You must understand what you are doing by signing the Will.

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With a little support, adult individuals with intellectual disabilities or mental illnesses often lead independent and fulfilling lives. For example, the Massachusetts Vocational Rehabilitation Services program, with offices throughout the Commonwealth, including in Lawrence, Lowell, Malden, Salem and Somerville on the Northshore, offers assistance to individuals with disabilities to obtain and maintain employment. However, some disabled individuals require additional support in their personal lives when they are unable to make certain decisions on their own behalf. In such situations, a guardianship may be appropriate.

commerce-acts-books-477966-mGuardianship is a formal proceeding in the Probate and Family Court that grants the court appointed guardian legal authority to care for and make decisions on behalf of an incapacitated person. An incapacitated person is defined as “an individual for reasons other than advanced age or minority, has a clinically diagnosed condition that results in an inability to receive and evaluate information or make or communicate decisions to such an extent that the individual lacks the ability to meet essential requirements for physical health, safety, or self-care, even with appropriate technological assistance.” MGLC 190B, §5-101(9). The guardian may be granted plenary or complete authority to make decisions on behalf of the incapacitated person; however, a limited guardianship that only grants the guardian decision making authority where the incapacitated adult cannot make her own effective decisions, is favored. The purpose of a guardianship is to promote the safety and well-being of an incapacitated individual, not to take away an incapacitated person’s independence.

The Probate and Family Court will tailor the guardianship to the incapacitated person’s specific needs in order to promote self-reliance. The question becomes, “what is in the best interest of the incapacitated person?” To answer this question, the court will consider evidence and arguments not only from the person seeking the guardianship, but also from the incapacitated person herself and any other interested person. Last year, in the matter of Guardianship of B.V.G., the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts provided guidance as to who is considered an “interested person.”

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If you read this blog on a regular basis (who doesn’t!!) you may recall an article entry from a year ago about challenges one can face when contesting a Will.  In that entry we cautioned that a challenger to a probate estate can be held responsible for the other parties’ legal fees for an unsuccessful challenge.  Whether you are from Lynn, Saugus, Lynnfield, Peabody, Salem and seeking redress in the Essex Probate Court, or Wakefield, Reading, North Reading or elsewhere in Middlesex County; it is important to know your rights and what limitations and pitfalls could await you in contesting a Will or appointment of a personal representative.

commerce-acts-books-477966-mA recent Probate Court decision illustrates how tricky (and costly) an unsuccessful challenge in a probate court can be.  Here’s what went down in Giroux v. Laranjo, et al., Lawyers Weekly No. 15-007-16.

Ms. Giroux was the attorney in fact for the decedent during his life under a power of attorney and after his death was the estate’s personal representative.  While the decedent was living, Ms. Giroux amended the distribution percentages in the decedent’s realty trust so that her beneficial interest increased and the other beneficiaries’ interests decreased.  She did this under her power as attorney in fact for the principal.  This was apparently what the decedent wanted.

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It has been a red-hot residential real estate market all over Massachusetts. Homes in good locations that are updated and priced fairly are going under contract quickly. The weather may be turning colder as we head into 2017 but the sale prices of good housing throughout the North Shore, including Lynnfield, Saugus, Danvers, Lynn and Wakefield have stayed firm.  As New Englanders know, after a snow-filled winter, a warm spring is always welcome.  Traditionally the housing market heats up once the snow begins to melt. However, with the small inventory of available homes today, potential buyers may wish to keep close watch on new listings during the winter too. If 2017 is the year you will buy your house, be mindful that there are many complications involved with purchasing a home, from start to closing. An experienced and knowledgeable real estate attorney to represent your interests only, throughout the process, can be valuable. Actually, is a lawyer required for closing?

commerce-acts-books-477966-mMassachusetts is one of the few states in the country that is considered an “attorney state” for residential real estate transactions. That means that home buyers and sellers in Massachusetts typically have an attorney represent them (unlike other states where most matters are handled by a real estate agent and a title company). An attorney’s involvement is required by G.L. c. 221, s. 46A, which prohibits the unauthorized practice of law by non-lawyers.

The MA Real Estate bar Association (REBA) takes the position that real estate closings conducted by non-attorneys, often called “witness-only closings” or “notary closings”, are not in the best interest of the consumer or buyer.  “Decisions made by home buyers and other mortgage borrowers are particularly susceptible of improper influence, and even predatory behavior, by individuals who are unqualified to give legal advice.” REBA strongly recommends that the Buyer and Seller each have their own attorney in addition to the attorney conducting the closing, to prevent an issue of conflict and to assure that each side is adequately represented.

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