Three Years or You’re Out: SJC Limits MassHealth Estate Recovery Claims

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by Meredith A. Fine

Case Focus

In In the Matter of the Estate of Kendall, 486 Mass. 522 (2020) (“Kendall”), the Supreme Judicial Court (“’SJC”) held that MassHealth has three years from a beneficiary’s death to file its claims for reimbursement on estates or the claim is barred.

Background

MassHealth filed a claim against the estate of Jacqueline Ann Kendall more than three years after Ms. Kendall died intestate on August 7, 2014.  At the time of her death, Ms. Kendall owned a one half interest in a house and had received $104,738.23 in MassHealth benefits, which payments were subject to recovery by MassHealth from her estate.

More than three years after her death, on May 24, 2018, an heir filed a Petition for Late and Limited Testacy in the Probate & Family Court, seeking appointment as the personal representative. As required by statute, a copy of the probate petition was mailed to the Division of Medical Assistance (the “Division”), the state Medicaid agency that administers the MassHealth program. MassHealth notified counsel for the probate petitioner it would file a notice of claim in the estate. The estate rejected the claim as untimely.

MassHealth filed objections asserting its rights to present and recover claims under the Massachusetts Uniform Probate Code, G. L. c. 190B (the “Probate Code”), even after the three-year bar on creditor claims established under § 3-108 (4), and the one-year creditor filing deadline established under § 3-803 (a). MassHealth also filed a petition for formal probate requesting the appointment of a public administrator as the personal representative so that the MassHealth claim could be paid.

In April 2019, after a judge of the Probate and Family Court certified a series of questions to the Massachusetts Appeals Court, the SJC transferred the case on its own initiative. The National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys, joined by the Real Estate Bar Association, filed an amicus brief in support of the position taken by Ms. Kendall’s estate.

The SJC’s Decision

Justice Scott L. Kafker, writing for a unanimous Court, held that the Probate Code § 3-108 (4) prohibits the filing of any claims other than expenses of administration in estates after three years from the date of death, and also prohibits the personal representative from paying such late presented claims. In its 21-page decision, the SJC first reviewed the statutory background of the Probate Code and the MassHealth Estate Recovery program and determined that although the Legislature provided MassHealth with various advantages over other creditors, it did not exempt MassHealth from the three-year “ultimate time limit” on the filing and payment of all creditors’ claims against estates established in § 3- 108 of the Probate Code. Kendall, 486 Mass. at 523.

‘Plain and clear language’

In explicating the statutory scheme under well-established principles of statutory construction, the SJC’s 21-page decision emphasized that the three-year time limit is critical to the Commonwealth’s longstanding policy of “promoting a speedy and efficient system for liquidating the estate of the decedent and making distribution to the decedent’s successors” that is embodied in G. L. c. 190B, § 1-102 (b) (3)Kendall, 486 Mass. at 526.

The Court reasoned that the Legislature knew how to exempt MassHealth from requirements that applied to other creditors, but specifically did not include an exemption for the Division from the three-year limit on creditors’ claims set forth in § 3-108 of the Probate Code which “functions essentially as a statute of repose” and has “the effect of placing an ‘absolute time limit’ on liability.” Kendall, 486 Mass. at 528 (“Where the Legislature intended for differential treatment for MassHealth in the probate process, it did so expressly.”).

The Court continued, “The three-year ultimate time limit is a critical provision ensuring the orderly settlement and liquidation of estates in a relatively expeditious manner. We conclude that if the Legislature intended to create an exception for MassHealth to this ultimate time limit, it would have done so expressly in that particular provision.”  Id. Indeed, the language of the Probate Code establishing the ultimate time limit and limiting the powers of the personal representatives in late and limited testacy is “plain and clear.”  Id.

The Court gave significance to the fact that creditors, including MassHealth, have the power to open estates in order to preserve claims, “provided that the petition for an appointment of a personal representative was filed prior to the expiration of the ‘ultimate time limit’ of § 3-108.” Kendall, 486 Mass. At 531. However, the Court rejected MassHealth’s argument that limiting the time to file claims would violate federal Medicaid rules. “Nothing in the Federal law requires, as MassHealth claims, that MassHealth go beyond the bounds of State law to recover the maximum possible extent of its benefits.” Id. at 533 (citing to Daley v. Secretary of the Executive Office of Health & Human Servs., 477 Mass. 188, 204 n. 15 (2017), describing how state has limited right to recover probate assets consistent with federal Medicaid law).

The Court also acknowledged but dismissed MassHealth’s argument about unfairly shifting an undue burden to the Division to track the status and receipt of notice of the deaths of beneficiaries who are not in long-term care facilities. The Court observed that most estates will be settled quickly, and that MassHealth with due diligence should be aware when benefits to its clients cease and can cross-match this information with public death records or undertake direct inquiry to ascertain a beneficiary’s status as MassHealth’s Estate Recovery Unit already takes steps to do.

In addressing MassHealth’s argument that heirs would wait out the three-year period to avoid reimbursing MassHealth, the Court pointed out that the Legislature had already examined that possibility and deemed the scenario unlikely and the associated risk low. “The Legislature’s risk assessment and overall cost-benefit analysis is entitled to respect.” Id. (quoting from official comment to G. L. c. 190B § 3-803).

Conclusion

The SJC has answered:  The Massachusetts Uniform Probate Code is clear that more than three years from the date of death, a personal representative has the power only to sign title documents and pay estate administration expenses, and MassHealth is not exempt from the three-year “ultimate time limit” for bringing creditors’ claims against estates. Indeed, if MassHealth’s arguments prevailed, estates would never close.  And, personal representatives of estates would never be freed from their duties and personal liability, and the estate’s interest in assets, such as real estate, would never be fully released. In Kendall, the Court affirmed that the obligation of timely filing estate claims rests squarely on the shoulders of the creditor, in this case MassHealth, as the Legislature intended. At some point, estates must close.

Meredith A. Fine, Esq., has offices in Gloucester and Ipswich, where her practice focuses on real estate, litigation, and business counseling. She can be reached through her website, capeannlegal.com. Winning the Kendall case was the highlight of her career to date but not as exciting as the NY Mets winning the World Series in 1969.