Law Special Coverage

Representatives Must Navigate the Many Ways to Probate an Estate

Complex Decisions

By Michael Roundy, Esq.

Estate representatives have a variety of options for how to probate an estate. Decisions made early in the process may have long-term consequences, as reflected in a recent decision of the Supreme Judicial Court, In re Estate of Slavin.

The Massachusetts Legislature enacted the Massachusetts version of the Uniform Probate Code (MUPC) in 2008. Under the MUPC, estates may be administered under a ‘formal’ or ‘informal’ process, as ‘supervised’ or ‘unsupervised’ administrations, as a ‘voluntary’ administration, and even by appointment of a ‘special personal representative’ under some circumstances.

Sorting through all of these options may seem daunting — and mistakes made at the initial stage may have lasting impact. In Estate of Slavin, an early decision to file as a voluntary personal representative nearly prevented the voluntary PR from pursuing a wrongful-death claim on behalf of the estate.

An informal probate, under Section 3-301 of the MUPC, is possible where the proposed personal representative has priority for appointment (usually named as PR in the will), and is in possession of the original will. A petition for informal appointment in intestacy (without a will) must also attest that, after a reasonably diligent search, the petitioner is unaware of any unrevoked will or why such an instrument the petitioner is aware of is not being probated. Informal probate is overseen by a magistrate rather than a judge, and hearings are not permitted. The benefit of informal probate is that it can be a faster process than a formal probate.

A formal probate, under Section 3-402 of the MUPC, is typically heard by a judge and may involve one or more hearings. It may be necessary to file a formal probate in order to object to an informal probate if the terms of the will are unclear, if the administration needs to be supervised, if the court needs to appoint a special personal representative, or for other reasons. A formal petition may also be used to obtain a judicial determination of intestacy, and of the heirs, without requesting the appointment of a personal representative.

Michael Roundy

Michael Roundy

“Sorting through all of these options may seem daunting — and mistakes made at the initial stage may have lasting impact.”

A formal administration may be supervised or unsupervised. A supervised administration is overseen more closely by the court, which typically must approve everything the PR wants to do before he or she does it. A supervised administration may be requested by the PR or by any interested person, and may be requested while a petition to appoint the PR is pending, or after the PR has already been appointed. Where a will directs supervised administration, it will be ordered unless the court finds that the circumstances relating to the need for supervision have changed since execution of the will.

For some estates, it may be necessary to appoint a special personal representative under Section 3-614 of the MUPC for specific purposes, such as searching the decedent’s safe-deposit box for his or her will, or to preserve assets of the estate. A special PR may also be appointed for the purpose of performing an act that a general PR cannot or should not perform due to a potential conflict of interest. While a special PR can have many of the same powers as a permanent PR, the special PR is not able to sell or distribute any assets of the estate.

Small estates may be administered by a voluntary PR. Under Section 3-1201 of the MUPC, a voluntary PR may administer an estate consisting only of personal property (no real estate) that includes a vehicle owned by the decedent and other property valued up to a cap of $25,000. Although voluntary PRs are recognized as such by certification by the register of probate, they are not appointed to the role by a judge or magistrate.


Case in Point

In Estate of Slavin, the decedent’s daughter filed the necessary statement of voluntary administration, which the register of probate certified in accordance with Section 3-1201. The daughter served as the voluntary PR for more than four years before she filed a petition for formal probate, seeking appointment as a personal representative under Section 3-402. She feared, correctly, that, as a voluntary PR, she would be unable to pursue a wrongful-death claim.

Although all five of the decedent’s other children assented to the daughter’s appointment as PR under the formal petition, the Probate and Family Court judge denied the appointment. The judge noted that Section 3-108 of the MUPC prohibits filing a formal petition for appointment more than three years after the decedent’s death. Since the decedent in Estate of Slavin had at that point died more than four years earlier, the judge denied the formal petition.

“The Estate of Slavin case reflects the potentially dramatic impact of an early decision about which method to use for probating an estate.”

The daughter appealed. The Supreme Judicial Court took the case for direct appellate review and reversed the lower court’s decision. The SJC noted that one of the few exceptions in Section 3-108 to the three-year limit on filing for a formal probate appointment is “appointment proceedings relating to an estate in which there has been a prior appointment.” While the Probate and Family Court judge found that a voluntary personal representative is not a ‘prior appointment,’ the SJC disagreed, holding that the exception in Section 3-108 “does not limit the type of prior appointment that qualifies.”

It agreed that, while a personal representative in a formal or informal probate must be appointed by a judge, a voluntary PR does not need to be. However, the voluntary PR statute does permit the register of probate to “issue a certificate of appointment to such voluntary personal representative” (MUPC Section 3-1201).

Moreover, the voluntary PR has the authority to pay debts, receive and sell personal property, pay funeral expenses, and distribute any balance remaining according to the principles of intestate succession. In addition, Section 3-1201 notes, third parties delivering property to the estate are “discharged and released to the same extent as if he dealt with a personal representative of the decedent.” Finally, a voluntary PR is liable for his or her administration of the estate to the same extent as a personal representative who was appointed by the court.

For all of these reasons, the SJC held that a voluntary PR constitutes an ‘appointment’ within the scope of the ‘prior appointment’ exception of Section 3-108. Thus, the daughter could be formally appointed (more than four years after death) as PR and pursue the wrongful-death claim that she could not pursue as a voluntary PR.

The Estate of Slavin case reflects the potentially dramatic impact of an early decision about which method to use for probating an estate. Would-be estate administrators may want to seek assistance from a qualified attorney in navigating such complex decisions.


Michael Roundy is a partner at the Springfield-based law firm Bulkley Richardson.