On February 23, 2010, the US Bankruptcy Court in Massachusetts finally did what the Massachusetts state legislature has been unable to do for years: the court ruled that the Massachusetts Homestead Exemption is applicable to an owner whose property is in a revocable trust. Since this decision, In re Rodrigues, Bankr. D. Mass. Case No. 09-11960-JNF, the legislature has been working to pass a new statute that will replace Massachusetts General Laws, chapter 188, the statute concerning homesteads. The legislature is very close to passing a new law. Today we will review the Rodrigues decision, the pending Massachusetts legislation, and how it may be beneficial to you.
Olga M. Rodrigues and her now deceased husband purchased a home in September 1979. Mr. Rodrigues died in 1994, and Mrs. Rodrigues became the sole owner of the home. Shortly thereafter, she transferred the home into a revocable trust where she was the trustee and her children were the beneficiaries of the trust upon her death. Once the home was transferred into the trust, Mrs. Rodrigues no longer owned the legal title to the home; at the point, she only owned equitable title. In April 2008, less than a year before bankruptcy proceedings were filed against her, Mrs. Rodrigues executed a Declaration of Homestead and recorded the declaration in the Bristol County Registry of Deeds. The declaration stated that she owned, possessed, and occupied the home as her residence and homestead under the Massachusetts General Laws, chapter 188. This declaration was only partially correct because she did not actually own the home, but she did possess it and she was occupying it.
Currently, the law dealing with the Massachusetts Homestead Exemption states that a homestead interest “may be acquired … by an owner or owners of a home or by one or all who rightfully possess the premise by lease or otherwise.” M.G.L., c. 188, §1 (2007). Although Mrs. Rodrigues was no longer a legal owner of the home, when she recorded her Declaration of Homestead, she rightfully held possession of the home and evidenced her intent to occupy the premises as her principal residence. Judge Feeney, the bankruptcy court judge in this case, held that Mrs. Rodrigues’ actions satisfied the Massachusetts law concerning homestead and that she had validly exercised her homestead exemption. The result of this case has encouraged the Massachusetts state legislature to rewrite M.G.L., c. 188, to make it clearer and include language about trusts and the homestead exemption.
Going forward, the proposed law moving through the state legislature specifically uses language allowing a trustee of a trust containing real estate to make a declaration of homestead for the person or persons occupying the premise. The law states that the person claiming the homestead exemption must prove that he or she is using or intends to use the home as his or her principal residence. If this law passes, holding your home in a trust may be a safe way to protect it from unsecure creditors. Please visit the current text of Senate Bill 2401, An Act Relative to the Estate of Homestead.