Massachusetts Probate Procedure
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Massachusetts probate procedure breaks down into two main types of probate administration, depending on whether or not a will existed. For estates where there is a will, the purpose of probate is to ensure that assets pass along according to the directions provided in the will, to the extent that those directions are legal. For estates without a will, known as "intestate" estates, probate is intended to guide the process of asset distribution fairly and in consideration of all parties with possible claims on the estate. Probate laws thus come into play much more in the case of intestate proceedings.
Whether or not a will existed, you will need to set up an appointment with the court, inventory all the property of the decedent, determine the heirs and successors (this is easier with a will, of course), and prepare all necessary estate and income tax returns that may be required in order to legally distribute the estate. Lists of creditors must be prepared and notice must be provided so that all the expenses of the estate can be settled (leaving any remaining assets to be distributed to the lawfully intended parties).
Before you move forward with your Massachusetts probate, you should compile an original probate file, complete with all the records the decedent intended it to include. Depending on the estate and the decedent's amount of planning, probate files might contain a letter of administration only, or much more: letters, wills, petitions, lists of heirs and accounts. If you are still in the information-gathering stage and have not compiled these records, try searching the county records for the county in which the decedent resided. Consult the courthouse with jurisdiction over the county in which the decedent lived - not where he or she died - for a better chance of finding original versions of the documents you may need.
Formal probate proceedings, as opposed to probate alternatives, often require the assistance of an experienced Massachusetts probate attorney. For more information, check out our article on the Basics of Massachusetts Probate.