Massachusetts Agencies

Determination of Value


Many conveyancers believe that if a person dies with a spouse but no issue that the spouse will succeed to all property. This may occur, but not automatically. G.L.c. 190, §1 provides "[i]f the deceased leaves kindred and no issue, and it appears on determination of the probate court, as hereinafter provided, that the whole estate does not exceed [a certain amount][1] in value, the surviving husband or wife shall take the whole thereof [but] otherwise the survivor shall take [the stated amount in cash] and one half of the remaining personal property and one half of the remaining real property [with provision that so much of the real estate may be sold to generate the stated amount of cash to which the spouse is entitled]." (Emphasis added.) The most enlightening case, both as to the issue of determination of value under G.L.c. 190, §1 and the history[2] of the statute itself, is Seavey v. O'Brien, 307 Mass. 33, 29 N.E.2d 196 (1940). In holding that the surviving spouse took the entire estate the Seavey court presumed that "it had been duly determined by the Probate Court" that the value of the deceased did not exceed $5,000. The determination is made "upon petition to the probate court" and after "such notice as the court shall order, and after a hearing thereon." The determination clearly is by formal proceeding, and is required to establish the spouse's rights in the property of the estate, and a mere review of the inventory of the estate seems inadequate for the purpose. The Seavey court did note that the determination can be made on the petition "of any party in interest," which might include any party claiming under the wife.

The statute appears to be fairly straight-forward. However, it was discussed in Hite v. Hite, 301 Mass. 294, 17 N.E.2d 176 (1938), and the decision in that case is rather interesting, deserving of comment. In Hite it appeared that the widow of a nonresident decedent who had died intestate in Ohio brought a petition under G.L.c. 190, §1 for a determination of value in an effort to succeed to all of her late husband's property. Four basic facts can be established from the case: (i) The decedent left real and personal property in Massachusetts valued at less than $5,000,[3] (ii) the value of the decedent's property in all states exceeded $5,000, (iii) the law of Ohio provided that the surviving spouse's share in the estate of an intestate decedent dying without issue would be limited to a three-fourths interest, the remaining one-fourth being distributed to the decedent's surviving parents and (iv) the intestate decedent left a widow, his father but no issue. The court said this: 

The intestate was a nonresident and his estate located here must be administered in the manner prescribed by G.L.c. (Ter.Ed.) c. 199, §1.[4]

Chapter 199 must be construed with chapter 190 as parts of a single and complete statutory arrangement covering the descent and distribution of estates. * * * It is limited to such property as is found within this jurisdiction and does not extend to the complete settlement of all the estate which is the subject matter coming within the sweep of chapter 190. In the next place, our statutes require that recognition be given to the laws of the sister State in determining the distribution of the personalty located here, while under our statutes governing the administration of the estate of a resident decedent the entire estate is administered exclusively according to our own laws. * * *

It is plain, however, that the distributive share of the wife [to personal property] is fixed by the law of Ohio, and to permit her to take all the personal property located here as the wife of a resident decedent might do would be contrary to the law of the domiciliary State, unless that law contained provisions similar to our own.

The court then noted that the law of Ohio had not been admitted into evidence during the trial, and so it did not know from the record whether the law of Ohio was in fact similar to that of Massachusetts. However, the court took judicial notice of that law and established that under it the decedent's father would be entitled to a one-fourth interest in the personal property. Accordingly, the court determined that under the circumstances the widow could not utilize the provisions of G.L.c. 190, §1 in such a way as to vest her with the whole estate of her husband, for to do so would be in conflict with G.L.c. 199, §1. 

1 This amount in 1929 was $5,000. Presently the limit is $200,000. [Back to Text

2 In 1929 the law in effect was that which is discussed in Seavey, and therefore applicable to your facts. [Back to Text

3 The statutory threshold in 1938 was $5,000, but the application of the law today would be the same, except with respect to the $200,000 limit. [Back to Text

4 G.L.c. 199, §1 provides as follows: "If administration is taken in this commonwealth on the estate of a person who was an inhabitant of any other state or country, his estate found here shall, after payment of his debts, be disposed of according to his last will, if any; otherwise his real property shall descend according to the laws of this commonwealth, and his personal property shall be distributed and disposed of according to the laws of the state or country of which he was an inhabitant." [Back to Text