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What happens if a person dies without a will in Massachusetts?

In a previous blog post, we discussed the virtues of having an estate plan in place. Without a will or plan created before the time of death, a person’s assets and real property will be distributed according to state law -- rather than his or her wishes. After all, those intentions cannot be verified without a clear written record.

Although the aforementioned blog post cited state laws of intestacy, details about these statutes weren't provided. On a very basic level, Massachusetts intestate succession laws provide a hierarchy of those who will benefit from a person's assets and property.

According to Massachusetts statute, assets will be distributed to the following parties if no enforceable will is in place at the time of an individual's passing:

  • Spouse: By default, a person's surviving spouse will receive the full share of assets and property.
  • Children: If a person isn't survived by a spouse, assets will be divided equally among his or her descendants.
  • Parents: Without a surviving spouse or children, the assets will then be divided individually or equally to surviving parents.
  • Siblings: If a person dies without being survived by any of the aforementioned parties, then siblings would split assets and property equally.
  • Next of kin: Finally, surviving cousins would be named as beneficiaries in the absence of the previously mentioned family members. Assets would be split based on how closely related the cousins are to the decedent.

Although state laws provide a clear hierarchy of beneficiaries, assets might end up going to the "wrong" party. For example, people might have stepchildren that they would like to provide assets to, but the laws of intestacy aren't inclusive of that relationship. At the same time, an individual might prefer to benefit a charitable organization, as opposed to relatives.

Of course, the two examples provided above are just a couple of potential reasons why a person should consider writing a will. Ultimately, estate planning is about an individual's ability to control his or her legacy. Failing to follow through in this regard would subject a person's legacy to the preferences of state law.

Source: Massachusetts State Legislature, "Share of Heirs Other Than Suriviving Spouse," M.G.L.A. 190B § 2-103, accessed April 24, 2014

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