Sometimes, the best family is the one we choose for ourselves: friends, mentors, and significant others. Regardless of how good—or not—your relationship with your biological family is, the law will recognize your blood (or legally adopted) relatives as your heirs should you die without a will and other estate-planning documents in place. In the best of circumstances, that can mean beloved blood relatives shouldering a burden they are not emotionally or logistically prepared to handle. In a more troubling scenario, it could mean your estranged relatives making decisions about your medical care, funeral arrangements, and assets that go directly against your wishes.

Degrees of Kin

Massachusetts defines next of kin (or, more accurately, heirs at law) as follows, beginning with the closest relation and moving outward: spouse, children and descendants in later generations, parents, siblings, and grandparents. When there are no surviving relatives within these degrees of kinship, the courts consult a detailed chart, searching for distant cousins who may not even know you.

There are additional formulas for different family situations, some of which are unexpected. For example, if a decedent leaves behind a spouse, the spouse inherits everything. However, if the decedent’s parents are still alive, and there are no children, the spouse would inherit only the first $200, 000 of an estate and half the balance of the estate, with the remaining half going to the parents. For persons of considerable means, this could have a significant impact on their widow or widower’s future.

Powers of Attorney and Healthcare Proxies

Power of attorney, which allows another person to act on your behalf in financial and legal matters, does not automatically vest with kinship. In other words, while someone might inherit after your death as next of kin, he or she has no right to file your taxes or access your bank accounts while you are comatose in the hospital unless you specifically grant it. Without power of attorney determined, the probate court will most likely get involved—a process which costs time, money, and loved ones’ sanity.

Without a healthcare proxy, doctors will rely on your loved ones’ best guesses as to your wishes—or their own preferences—to decide on your end-of-life care. This can lead to fights among family members and other loved ones as they debate what you would “really” want. Worst of all, you likely will not get what you wanted: you may have been against being kept alive by machines for religious reasons, but your family thought “pulling the plug” was a betrayal of their love for you.

Put Last Things First: You Need a Probate Lawyer You Can Trust

Save yourself—and your loved ones—a lot of trouble and worry. Plan today, in consultation with those you love, for someone who can handle the responsibilities of power of attorney, healthcare proxy, or executor to be named in your legal documents. We can help you and your family discuss what is best for you and draft these critical documents.

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