Many people avoid thinking about what will happen to their property and assets after their death, and ultimately die without a will to determine how their estate will be disbursed. Family members of an individual who dies intestate may not see the necessity in determining how the estate should be divided and may delay in taking any action to raise an estate and appoint a personal representative. The failure to take prompt action when a person passes away can have a damaging effect on your ability to control the estate’s assets, however. A recent Massachusetts estate planning decision held that you waive certain rights if you do not act in a timely manner.
In Bennett v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, the Superior Court of Massachusetts defined what rights a limited personal representative has with regards to a decedent’s estate. Specifically, the court addressed whether a personal representative who is granted limited authority under the Uniform Probate Code (UPC) has standing to pursue tort actions that are an asset of the decedent’s estate. In Bennet, the Plaintiff’s father died on March 7, 2014. Section 3-108 of the UPC provides that no testacy or appointment proceeding may take place more than three years after a decedent’s death. If no personal representative has been appointed within three years of a decedent’s death, section 3-108(4) of the UPC allows for a personal representative to be named, but only for the limited purpose of determining successors to the estate. Section 3-108(4) specifically states, however, the representative does not have the right to possess any estate assets. Plaintiff was appointed the limited representative of the estate, pursuant to section 3-108(4), on July 26, 2017.
Plaintiff subsequently brought claims of wrongful death and civil conspiracy against the Defendant, as the limited personal representative of the estate of her deceased father. The Defendant filed a motion to dismiss the Complaint, arguing the Plaintiff’s appointment as a personal representative of the estate under section 3-108(4) of the UPC did not grant her the authority to pursue a wrongful death claim or any tort claim that belonged to the decedent and became a part of the decedent’s estate upon his death.
The court noted the Bennet case posed an issue of first impression in Massachusetts and other states which had recently adopted the Uniform Probate Code. In its analysis, the court found the tenets of the UPC clearly did not allow a limited personal representative to pursue claims that belonged to the decedent, such as claims for conscious pain and suffering, on behalf of the estate. As such, the court found the Plaintiff had no standing to pursue the civil conspiracy claim.
The court found the issue of whether the Plaintiff could pursue the wrongful death claim to be more complicated. While a wrongful death claim can only be pursued by a decedent’s executor or administrator, any damages recovered pursuant to that claim do not belong to the estate, but belong to the beneficiaries of the claim. As such, the UPC did not address the issue of whether limited personal representatives could pursue wrongful death claims. The court ultimately relied on Marco v. Green, a case decided by the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts prior to the adoption of the UPC, in determining whether a limited personal representative could pursue a wrongful death claim. In Marco, the court held a voluntary administrator did not have standing to pursue claims, as a voluntary administrator only had limited authority to administer assets and debts of an estate and could not pursue wrongful death actions. The Bennett court found that, analogous to the voluntary administrator in Marco, a limited personal representative under the UPC could only confirm title to assets, and could not pursue a wrongful death claim. As such, the court found the Plaintiff did not have standing to file the claim, and granted the dismissal of the Complaint.
It is important to have a thorough and carefully drafted will to determine how your estate’s assets will be devised after your death. The Massachusetts estate planning attorneys at the Law Office of James K. Meehan have the knowledge and experience to assist you with all of your estate planning needs. Our attorneys are mindful of the delicate considerations involved with estate planning and will guide you through the options available under the law and work tirelessly to provide you with a satisfactory plan. For a confidential consultation, call 508.822.6600.
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