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Legal Notes

Planning for the unexpected in your estate plan

Just after Christmas 2016, the day after the actress Carrie Fisher passed away, her mother, the actress and entertainer Debbie Reynolds, unexpectedly passed away. There is no public information about Debbie Reynolds’s estate plan, but if she had a Will and her daughter Carrie was named as a beneficiary, there is a lesson learned from this situation about how an unexpected death of a beneficiary named in a Will affects that distribution.

Massachusetts General Laws has an antilapse statute, M.G.L., c. 190B, Section 2-603. This statute states that if a beneficiary named in a Will is a grandparent or lineal descendant of a grandparent (a child, grandchild, parent, sibling, niece or nephew,  uncle or aunt, cousin, etc.) and that person predeceases you, then that relative’s share will then pass to his or her issue (their child or grandchildren) and not lapse. If Debbie Reynolds resided in Massachusetts and drafted a Will under Massachusetts laws that named her daughter Carrie Fisher as a beneficiary in her Will, then Carrie Fisher’s legacy would not lapse and it would then pass to her child unless the Will stated otherwise. 

In most cases having the child or children of a deceased lineal descendant of a grandparent receive that predeceased beneficiary’s legacy in a Will is the desired outcome anyway. In some cases, however, it may not be the desired outcome or even in the best interests of the beneficiary. You may not want the child or children of this deceased beneficiary to receive the legacy, or a child of the deceased beneficiary can be minor or mentally incapacitated and a conservator may need to be appointed, or a child of the deceased beneficiary might be receiving federal or state means-tested benefits that possibly could be negatively affected by the inheritance.

It is advisable to consider if the antilapse statute applies to beneficiaries named in your estate plan and determine if a beneficiary is a grandparent or lineal descendant of your grandparents. If a named beneficiary is not such a relative, the legacy would lapse if that person predeceases you and it would then be distributed according to the residue clause in the Will. It is always a good idea to name alternative takers whether they are close relatives or not in case the beneficiary named in your documents unexpectedly predeceases you and you were unable to amend your estate plan. Consider who else you would want to alternately receive that legacy from your estate. Consider also if that alternate beneficiary is even able to directly receive the legacy because of being a minor or incapacitated or if that person’s receipt of certain means-tested public benefits could possibly be negatively affected. 

The views expressed in this column represent general information. To address your particular and specific needs consult your own attorney. If you need help with referral to an attorney, contact the Franklin County Bar Association at (413) 773-9839 or the Worcester County Bar Association at (978) 752-1311. Elder law resources may be found through the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys, Massachusetts Chapter, at or 617-566-5640.

Community Legal Aid (CLA) provides legal services free to people age 60 and older for civil legal matters with an emphasis on access to health care coverage (MassHealth and Medicare) and public benefits as well as tenants’ rights. A request for legal assistance can be made by phone at 413-774-3747 or toll-free 1-855-252-5342 during their intake hours (Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday from 9:30 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. and Wednesday from 1:30 p.m. to 4:15 p.m.) or any time online by visiting