Usually, after your spouse, parent, relative, or friend has died, there is no legal issue that needs to be dealt with immediately. So, if you are the one responsible for taking care of the affairs of the deceased, don’t feel that you need to do anything in a hurry. Grieve. Breathe. Take some time for yourself. Then, when you are ready to deal with this, see a lawyer. There may be nothing to do. There may be a lot to do. Only a lawyer will know what you need to do based on the assets and situation of the person who died. That said, here are a few tips regarding issues that often come up.
- Dealing with the car: If you are the spouse of a person who died owning a car, you can simply go to the Registry of Motor Vehicles with a death certificate and fill out a form. The Registry will then transfer title to the car into your name. Otherwise (unfortunately), you will need to probate the estate and get an appointment from the Probate Court to give you authority to transfer title and registration to the person who inherits the car. Your lawyer can help you figure that out.
- If you and your spouse (or someone else) owned real estate jointly, when the deceased person died, his or her interest in the property ended and you became the sole owner. You need to file a death certificate in the Registry of Deeds to prove that. At the moment of death, though, Massachusetts immediately imposed a tax lien on the real estate to assure that any estate tax due gets paid. In most cases, you can remove that lien by filing an affidavit with the Registry indicating that the deceased did not need to file an estate tax return. In other cases, a Massachusetts estate tax return must be filed and a tax must be paid. Once again, talk to the lawyer about this.
- As with the real estate, any other assets of the deceased that were held jointly with you automatically became yours.
- Assets that were in the sole name of the deceased, like bank accounts, stock, other real estate, or other things, became part of their probate estate and can only be accessed by someone who has been appointed by the probate court as the decedent’s personal representative (formerly called the Executor or Executrix).
- While the “stuff” in the house or apartment of the deceased (called tangible personal property) is technically a probate asset, typically those items do not have a “title” that needs to be transferred and simply get divided up or disposed of by the family or other heirs of the estate without the need for probate. If there is a fight about any of this, though, the Probate Court will decide who gets what.
In general, unless Probate Court action is needed or there are trust assets or other more complex things to be dealt with, your lawyer’s involvement and your legal bill should be relatively small. Once you have stopped grieving, though, you should talk to a lawyer just to make sure you have not missed anything, or to discuss updating your own estate planning now. It will help you sleep better. If you want to learn more about these issues, you can watch this month’s episode of Elder Law 101. You can find it on MVTV (Comcast 13) or visit Frank and Mary’s YouTube channel, www.youtube.com/elderlawfrankandmary. If you have any questions, please contact me at 508-860-1470 or email@example.com.
Arthur P. Bergeron is an elder law attorney in the trusts and estates group at Mirick O’Connell.