Upon the death of a family member, a question often arises as to who is entitled to receive the assets of the deceased. Whether there is a Will or not, family and friends may squabble over the property, and descent and distribution of estate gifts may be the subject of disagreement. On the North Shore of Massachusetts there are probate courts in Salem and Lawrence for Essex County, Cambridge for Middlesex County and Boston for Suffolk County. Probate of the estate and any disagreement over the estate will likely be handled in the Probate Court for the county where the deceased resided at date of death.
The deceased may have expressed his or her wishes for the disposition of property by making a Will and specifying who gets what. The assets may be divided up depending on many factors, including value, type of property (real estate, bank accounts, stocks, cars, personal property or intangible property), or perhaps on the number of heirs, closeness of family, financial need of family members, or just the whim of the decedent. If no Will is found then the property is divided according to law or state statute, and will generally follow lines of consanguinity (family bloodlines or relatives).
With or without a Will, surviving family, friends and institutions such as charities or religious groups, may seek to claim an interest in the assets of the deceased. Disputes as to where the property and assets go may arise from promises made during the lifetime of the deceased, expectations of presumed recipients of the gift(s), the mental capacity of the deceased or possibly from alleged failure of the fiduciary of the estate to properly carry out the handling of the estate or assets.
An estate executor or administrator, now known as a personal representative, is deemed a fiduciary for the estate, for the benefit of the beneficiaries of the estate. The personal representative is required to act in the best interest of the estate to carry out the wishes of the deceased, to pay all taxes due on the estate, to collect any money or assets due to the estate, to pay all debts of the deceased and to assure that the assets are handled and then distributed to the correct heir or recipient, in the correct amount(s).
In a recent Massachusetts decision, there is an interesting discussion of a claim by one beneficiary that the administrator had failed to properly carry out her fiduciary responsibilities. In Cooke v. Snape, two sisters fought over the distribution of their grandmother’s estate. Sister one was the appointed administrator and despite court orders, failed to timely file an accounting for the estate. The other sister brought a complaint to have sister one removed as the fiduciary and to compel the accounting and to get back assets allegedly removed from the estate improperly. Sister one defended herself with a variety of excuses and explanations. Among Sister one’s defenses was that she had no money and thus lacked the ability to return anything improperly taken from the estate. The appellate court would have none of sister one’s arguments. On appeal the court found that “the (trial) judge did not err in refusing to credit the defendants’ assertions that they were financially unable to satisfy the requirement to reconvey the value of assets that they themselves had removed from the estate”. The appeals court also confirmed the removal of Sister one as administrator and confirmed the order that she return the property.
The complexity of probate and estate administration issues, the challenges of handling matters in the probate court and the importance of consulting with experienced probate counsel are well documented by this Cooke case. Anyone with an interest in an estate or the actions or decisions of an estate fiduciary may find it of value to review their circumstances with a probate lawyer at the earliest stage possible.