The probate process can be long and drawn-out, costing your survivors time as well as money. Fortunately, Massachusetts offers two probate shortcut for "small estates." If the property you leave behind at your death is below a certain amount, Massachusetts allows the property to be transferred more quickly and with less hassle.
There are two types of small estate proceedings in Massachusetts. The first is called "voluntary administration of small estates." To qualify, the estate (the property owned by the deceased person at death) must meet these requirements:
If your estate meets these requirements, the person wrapping up your affairs (usually an inheritor of your property) will petition the court to be named as the "personal representative" of your estate. They'll need to file a statement listing the assets in your estate.
Once this person is approved as the personal representative, they will be able to collect property owed, pay off debts, and distribute property to the inheritors without further court involvement. Of course, they'll need to do this correctly, or they'll be liable to anyone entitled to estate assets. Overall, the timeline for a small estate proceeding is much much faster than for regular probate.
Massachusetts' other probate shortcut for small estates is called "summary administration." You can use summary administration if the value of the entire estate, less liens and encumbrances (meaning after debts are subtracted), does not exceed the value of the:
(Mass. Gen. Laws Ann. § 3-1203). So what does all this mean? It's tricky not to have an exact dollar amount to compare against the size of your estate, but it really depends on your circumstances—for example, whether you leave behind a spouse and/or children. Some of these amounts also change over the years to match cost of living adjustments.
The bottom line is that if the size of your estate doesn't exceed these amounts, which can be set aside from your estate by law, your executor or personal representative can wrap up your estate in probate court very quickly because there aren't any remaining assets after these amounts are paid out.
Your executor or personal representative will need to file a Small Estate Closing Statement (MPC 851), and can then distribute the assets without having to jump through the hoops of regular probate.
For more help handling an estate in general, see The Executor's Guide, by Mary Randolph (Nolo). For an introduction to how you can plan your estate to help your survivors, try Estate Planning Basics, by Denis Clifford (Nolo).
For more on Massachusetts estate planning issues, see our section on Massachusetts Estate Planning.