Real Estate: Estate Sales & Probate

My colleague, real estate expert Rich Vetstein, recently posted a good primer on his Massachusetts Real Estate Law Blog about sales of real estate after people have passed away.  I am reposting it here for you in its entirety, with Rich’s permission.  I especially like the last part he added! {Smile}  
After every Closing, I conduct a “Post Closing Asset Review” to advise all my Real Estate Buyer and Seller clients about the changes their real estate sale and/or purchase made to their current asset structure and what that means for them in terms of their estate planning legal needs.  Sometimes the real estate transactions necessitate tweaking existing plans a little, other times the changes call for a brand new (or first) estate plan, Wills and/or Trusts and all, and sometimes everything is in great shape and no changes are needed at that time at all!  
If you have questions about how yourrecent Massachusetts real estate purchase or sale affected your estate plan or you’re wondering if you really need one just yet, give my office a call at (781) 740-0848 x.2 and my Client Liaison & Paralegal, Astrid, will be happy to answer some initial questions to see if you’d like to schedule a meeting with me to review your situation and/or current estate plan and analyze your present needs.

Death and Taxes: Estate Sales, & Probate Issues in Massachusetts Real Estate Practice
by Rich Vetstein October 13, 2011

Benjamin Franklin once said famously that “the only certainties in life are death and taxes.” That’s certainly true in real estate practice. Today, I will go over how real estate passes when the owner dies  –  with a will or without a will – and how the probate process affects the real estate process.

Tenancy by the Entirety
Married couples in Massachusetts are recommended to hold real estate as “tenants by the entirety.” It’s a special form of joint tenancy for married couples. If one spouse dies, the surviving spouse succeeds to full ownership of the property, by-passing probate. By law, tenants by the entirety share equally in the control, management and rights to receive income from the property. Property cannot be “partitioned” or split in a tenancy by the entirety. A tenancy by the entirety also provides some creditor protection in case one spouse gets into financial distress as creditors cannot lien the non-debtor spouse’s interest in the property.

Death Without A Will—Intestacy Laws

Clients were often surprised to learn that when one spouse dies without a will, the law of intestacy in Massachusetts leaves a portion of the estate to the surviving spouse and a portion to the decedent’s children. This is changing as of January 2012 with Massachusetts’ adoption of the Uniform Probate Code. Under the “UPC,” if a spouse with children of the marriage dies, the surviving spouse gets the entire estate, including the marital home. If there’s no surviving “descendant,” or child, of the deceased, but a surviving parent of the deceased, the surviving spouse gets the first $200,000 of the estate, plus 75% of the balance of the estate. The laws of inheritance remains rather complicated to explain fully here. A good guide to the new Uniform Probate Code can be found here.

Death With A Will — Testate
The basic rule is that if the owner dies with a will, which includes a power to sell real estate, the executor or administrator of the estate is generally authorized to convey title without further authority from the probate court. If the will does not provide for a power of sale, the executor will have to obtain a license to sell from the probate court.  If a final account has been filed and allowed, the heirs (in the case of an intestacy) or devisees (in the case of a will) are able to convey title.

Missing Probates
If the title examination turns up an interest that is not accounted for by a probate, and the death of the interested party occurred less than 25 years ago, a probate may need to be opened to convey the property. Deaths over 25 years old where a special affidavit has been filed, may pass without probate.

Federal & Massachusetts Estate Tax Liens
A federal and state estate tax lien arises immediately upon death and attaches at the time of death to the gross estate of the decedent. The gross estate includes all property, wherever situated, that the decedent owned or in which the decedent had an interest at the time of death. The threshold for federal gross estates for 2011 and 2012 is $5 Million for an individual and $10 Million for a couple. The Massachusetts estate threshold remains at $1 Million. For estates below those amounts, the executor must merely file a simple Affidavit of No Estate Tax Due. Estates over the thresholds must file the more complicated release of lien from the Department of Revenue which requires the filing of a full estate tax return.

Bought A House? Get A Will!
After every closing, I always have a chat with my new buyers about setting up a will and other estate planning vehicles. It’s very important on all fronts. For those in the MetroWest area, I recommend Julie McQuade Ladimer, Esq. of Framingham (email:; Tel: (508) 788-0028. For those on the South Shore, I recommend Danielle G. Van Ess, Esq. in Hingham (email:; Tel: 781.740.0848. Both are very good and well regarded estate planning attorneys.

Julie Ladimer, Esq.

Danielle Van Ess

Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced real estate attorney who’s handled over 1,000 closings. Please contact him if you need legal assistance purchasing residential or commercial real estate.

About Danielle G. Van Ess

Danielle G. Van Ess is a Massachusetts (born and raised), experienced estate planning and small business attorney who helps her clients protect and preserve what matters most to them. To learn more, please visit: or call: 781-740-0848