Massachusetts Probate: The Basics

Massachusetts probate courts handle the legal distribution of a person's assets (known as their "estate") after death. If you're the legal heir to the estate of a recently deceased Massachusetts resident, you may have questions about whether the probate process is required or even necessary. The answer depends on the value of the assets comprising the estate of the decedent.

Bypassing Massachusetts Probate

If the decedent's estate is comprised only of personal property (no real property) and that personal property does not exceed $25,000 in value, then probate proceedings can be avoided in Massachusetts. Note that a motor vehicle does not count towards this monetary limit on personal property. Distribution of the property in such cases requires some simple legal tools that may not even necessitate an attorney's services.

The two processes that substitute for probate in this context are called "Voluntary Executor" or "Voluntary Administration." The Voluntary Administration program is for those estates being processed without a will. Its name refers to the form that must be signed and notarized before filing: Form CJP7 – Voluntary Administration. Voluntary Executor refers to Form CJ-P7A – Voluntary Executor." Note that these forms are currently undergoing updates because of revisions in the law, so it is best to check with the clerk of the probate court for the latest version.

Generally, Voluntary Executor or Voluntary Administration can be used if the following conditions are all met:

  1. The decedent was a Massachusetts resident at the time of death.
  2. The total value of all the decedent's assets is less than $25,000 (NOT including the value of any automobiles left behind, and NOT including the value of any assets that were held jointly with another with rights of survivorship).
  3. The estate of the decedent must NOT include real estate (there is an exception for real estate owned as "tenants by the entirety" or as "joint tenants."). There is NO exception for real estate owned with another under a "tenancy in common" (TIC).

Additional requirements for substituting Massachusetts probate with the Voluntary Executor or Voluntary Administration plans include:

  1. A 30-day waiting period after the death of the decedent.
  2. Filings to begin estate administration or probate must NOT have been filed with the court.
  3. A mentally competent adult (18 years of age or older) must be available and willing to serve as the estate administrator (or executor).
    • If the decedent died intestate (without a will), the person serving as administrator must be a Massachusetts resident and have been the spouse, child, grandchild, parent, brother, sister, niece, nephew, aunt, or uncle of the decedent.
    • If the decedent died testate (with a will), the person serving as administrator must be the person named in the will as administrator or as an alternate (should the first named person be unavailable or unwilling to serve).

If all the above conditions are met, to be sure the Voluntary Executor or Voluntary Administration process is available, you should obtain the following documents and file them with the local Probate Court (along with Form CJP7 or CJP7A, as discussed above):

  1. A certified death certificate.
  2. A list of the decedent's known property and the estimated value of each item.
  3. A list of those who owned properly jointly with the decedent.
  4. The names and addresses of those who would inherit under the will (if there was one).
  5. The names of addresses of those who would inherit under the law (if there is no will).

Furthermore, beforefiling these documents with the Probate Court, be sure to send copies of the completed CJP7 or CJP7A form and the death certificate to the Division of Medical Assistance, PO Box 15205, Worcester, MA 01615-9906. Certified mail is required.

Additional Massachusetts Probate Resources

Massachusetts Law Libraries: Massachusetts Law about Wills and Estates

Massachusetts Probate Court Forms

Barnstable County
Berkshire County
Bristol County
Bristol County (additional)
Dukes County
Essex County
Franklin County
Hampden County
Hampshire County
Middlesex County
Nantucket County
Norfolk County
Plymouth County
Suffolk County
Worcester County

Also, see our article on Massachusetts Probate Procedure.