When pop icon Prince died in 2016, he left behind an estate worth at least $200 million. Three years later, his estate is still unsettled and it’s believed that his closest family members have not yet received any inheritance. Why? Because Prince died intestate, or without a valid will. This is where intestacy laws come into play.
His fame and wealth have added a layer of complication to the settling of his estate, but Prince’s case isn’t an uncommon one. Settling an intestate decedent’s estate can take months or years. The probate court gets involved, making decisions about what happens to the estate based on the state’s intestacy laws. These laws determine how a person’s assets are distributed when they die without a will.
What Intestacy Laws Do
When someone dies with a will, their assets may be passed directly to their loved ones in accordance with the directions included in the will. But when someone dies intestate and leaves assets behind, their estate generally ends up being settled in probate court. Without a valid will that spells out the decedent’s wishes for their property, it falls to the court to distribute assets. Intestacy laws provide a framework for how that happens.
One of the primary functions of these laws is to clarify intestate succession, or the order in which heirs inherit the decedent’s assets. In some families, this is pretty straightforward; if the decedent has a surviving spouse and no other close living family members, the spouse may inherit the entire estate. But what happens if the decedent is survived by a girlfriend, a child, a newborn grandchild and an estranged half-sibling? Who’s entitled to inherit what? That’s one of the questions that intestacy laws answer.
Intestacy laws are complex because family structures can be complex. These laws establish eligibility requirements for heirs, essentially clarifying what kind of relationship an heir must have had to the decedent in order to receive property. If a new family member is born just after the decedent dies, can the baby inherit? Can a stepchild who was not legally adopted by the decedent inherit? Each state’s intestacy laws answer these kinds of questions. They may also dictate what portion of the estate each heir is entitled to receive. In addition to determining the order in which heirs inherit property, intestacy laws may also clarify what will happen to a decedent’s estate if there are no eligible heirs to inherit it.
Note that intestacy laws don’t necessarily apply to all of a decedent’s assets. Those assets that already have named beneficiaries, like employee death benefits or life insurance payouts, may be passed directly to those beneficiaries without being subject to probate.
Intestacy Laws in Massachusetts
All states have their own laws about estates and probate proceedings, with each state’s intestacy laws governing how its probate courts handle these cases. Intestacy laws in Massachusetts are complicated, and address a wide range of circumstances that could potentially arise.
For example, when a decedent is survived by a spouse, Massachusetts law dictates that the spouse inherit the entire intestate estate – but only if a number of conditions are met. If the decedent is also survived by a parent, intestacy laws say that the spouse receives the first $200,000 plus 3/4 of the remaining balance from the estate. If the surviving spouse has surviving descendants who are not also descendants of the decedent, however, the spouse gets the first $100,000 plus 1/2 the balance of the estate.
State law also dictates what happens to the estate when the surviving spouse doesn’t inherit it all, or when the deceased has no surviving spouse. In that case, the law says that property flows first to the decedent’s descendants, then to the decedent’s parent/s, then to those parents’ descendants. If there are no surviving close descendants, the estate should be equally divided among the decedent’s next of kin – but if there are multiple descendants of multiple deceased ancestors, who inherits may depend on whose ancestor was more closely related to the deceased.
Sounds complicated, right? These are just examples of a few of the provisions that make up Massachusetts intestacy laws. It’s easy to see how going through the probate process can be frustrating and confusing for a decedent’s loved ones. Meanwhile, they can’t access their inherited assets until the process is complete.
Who will inherit your assets when you die? If you haven’t drafted a will, it might not be up to you. The estate planning attorneys at Ladimer Law can help you clarify your wishes so intestacy laws don’t interfere. Contact Ladimer Law today to get started.
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