Probate & Trust Litigation

A resource for lawyers and the public in Massachusetts and New Hampshire for information on will contests, trust disputes, guardianships, conservatorships, elder exploitation, fiduciary duty claims, and other probate litigation disputes.

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A Cautionary Tale About Statutes of Limitations

A case recently heard by the Norfolk County, Massachusetts Superior Court serves as a reminder of the importance of paying attention to statutes of limitation and requirements for service of process, especially in cases involving estates.

Under Massachusetts law, a personal representative does not need to acknowledge any claim by a creditor of the decedent unless, within one year of the date of death, the creditor (1) files a lawsuit on the claim in the appropriate court, and (2) serves the personal representative with process in the suit or files a written notice of the claim with the Register of Probate where the estate is pending. G.L. ch. 190-B, § 3-803.

In this case, Frederick claimed that Carlos and Velia promised that he would be paid a sum of money upon the death of the last of them to die. Carlos died first. After Velia died, Frederick sued Velia’s estate seeking to recover the money he claimed he was owed. The personal representative of Velia’s estate moved to dismiss the complaint as untimely.

Frederick argued that Section 3-803 did not apply to his claim. He said that, because Carlos and Velia promised that he would get the money after they died, his claim was not against them, but against the estate. The court disagreed. Only claims that arise after the decedent’s death—such as claims for expenses incurred by the personal representative in the administration of the estate, or governmental claims for taxes on income received by the estate after the decedent’s death—are excepted from Section 3-803’s one-year statute of limitations. Even though Frederick would not have been able to collect on his claim while Carlos and Velia while they were alive, the claim nevertheless arose during their lifetimes when they made the promise. As a result, Frederick’s claim was a claim against the decedent, and not a claim against the estate. In determining whether the one-year statute of limitations applies, careful consideration should be given to when the claim arose.

Frederick’s case also offers lesson about the importance of satisfying all of the requirements of the statute. Section 3-803 requires that the claimant commence a lawsuit within one year of the decedent’s death. Frederick satisfied this requirement, but just barely—his lawsuit was filed one day before the one-year anniversary of Velia’s death. However, simply filing the lawsuit is not enough. Section 3-803 also requires that service of process, or the filing of a notice of claim in the Probate and Family Court, be made during the one year period. Frederick did not serve his complaint until more than two months later. This was fatal to his claim.

Parties with claims against decedents need to exercise great care in order to make sure that they assert their claims in a timely manner, and that they fully comply with the statutory requirements for filing and service.