After Life

(Note: This is the last one of these I’m going to write for a while. Not because they’re particularly depressing for me, but they can be a bit of a downer for others. Still, I’ve had a couple of people ask about “what happens next”, so without further ado, here’s what happens next.)

(Also note: this isn’t about the spiritual afterlife — the one that happens to your spirit when it leaves the body, if that is your belief. This is about what happens to others who are still in this life, when that happens, in a practical tactics sort of way.)

I once had a break of a whole week between two jobs — a real break, I had left company A and was moving to company B. In preparation for that I started a checklist of all the things I was going to do during that week — various house stuff, crafting projects, probably catching up on filing, reorganizing the pantry — and it grew. The checklist started about four weeks before the break, and about one week before the break, it was complete.

I had done all the things on the checklist.

It has taken me years to allow things to sit on a list for their appointed time, because my instinct is to do the thing if it can be done. This has historically resulted in manic cleaning fits, late-night papers, insomniac email, and associated unhealthy behaviors; I’m working on it. Still, I typically craft my resolutions for the New Year around Thanksgiving and start addressing them around mid-December.

I’ve had a will, and the standard, boilerplate living will/healthcare directive since I had my son. I felt like I had done all that needed to be done, things were addressed, and so if something were to happen to me, the “work” left to my estate would be trivial. My mom also had a will, a healthcare directive and healthcare power of attorney (that specifically named me). It took seven months from the time of her passing to the last bit of paperwork/administrative work to be complete.

(NOTE: I AM NOT A LEGAL PROFESSIONAL AND YOU SHOULD TOTALLY GO TALK TO ONE). In the interest of preventing others from going through this same hassle (inasmuch as it can be avoided), I’m going to share some specific experiences and some guidance for you as you think about your own paperwork or guide a family member through theirs.

When my mom got put on hospice, the hospice team suggested reaching out to make pre-arrangements with a funeral home. We did do that, a local place that was hugely sympathetic and understanding (I had to do it virtually thanks to the viral outbreak), and walked me through the process. They had a lot of questions that were not answered in mom’s documents: did she want an obituary? Did she want a full or partial viewing? What kind of container did she want her remains in? Did she want them interred in a cemetery or to come home? And so forth. Learning: go talk to the local funeral home/investigate their site and look at their intake forms. It will give you an idea of the questions you should either have answered in your will or separate letter to whomever you want taking care of that.

When it happened, the home walked us through the initial administrative process, and we notified mom’s lawyer that she had passed. Both the home and the lawyer walked us through next steps, which included such things as “let us know” (the home) “how many death certificates you need”, and “get me a death certificate and the most recent bank and title statements of the joint properties listed in the community property agreement” (a thing my parents had in addition to their will, that was supposed to streamline the process and avoid a lengthy probate). Learning: each financial or legal institution you will deal with will want a *certified* death certificate. So each life insurance, bank, etc. Start with five if you can, or if things are super-tight, start with the one and then ask each office to send it back. (In Washington State, death certificates are about $20 each, and your funeral home can get them for you as part of their service).

About a month or so in to going through mom’s papers, we discovered not one but two ancient life insurance policies – one opened up as a “savings account” for her by her father when she was born (the kind you pay each year and then cash out at 21, except she didn’t) and one she opened when she was still married to my dad, her first husband.

The savings account one wanted not only a death certificate but receipts from the process, and when they made a copy error (I am not making this up) and copied the receipts over the death certificate they held up progress for FOUR MONTHS while they sent me form letters saying they hadn’t heard from me. (I’d call and they’d tell me the form letter wasn’t as specific as it could be and that they wanted a new death certificate. When I pointed out they already had one and that their copy error shouldn’t be my problem, they agreed and said they’d handle it. The next month I’d get another form letter saying they hadn’t heard from me. Repeat.) Learning: the Insurance companies aren’t just going to let you file a claim and receive the paperwork and have it be all fine, be prepared to spend some phone time and (in my case) know who the OIC (Office of the Insurance Commissioner) is in your state, the state the life insurance contract was opened in, and the state the insurance company operates in. (In my case, I ended up opening a complaint in California, Pennsylvania, and with the BBB).

For the one opened in her first marriage, the insurance company did NOT care that there was a will, that my mom had divorced my dad, and that my mom had remarried. The beneficiary in this policy was my dad, and so to my dad the payment would go. (Dad mailed the payment to my StepDad because my dads are cool). Learning: Check your beneficiaries, especially if you have had a life change. Those can override any sentiments in your will.

Additionally, with Life Insurance, the appreciation you get on it (e.g., if the policy matured N years ago and therefore has been collecting X interest since then) is taxable. Learning: Talk to an accountant/estate planner about how that works and/or talk to yours if you are on the receiving end about the tax implications so you’re ready. (Also, not every insurance company withholds anything from this payment. I have a letter from the “savings” insurance company saying they did. The actual check stub and accounting does not show this. I’m not saying that insurance company sucks, but I won’t be voluntarily doing business with an insurance company whose name rhymes with Detrimental).

(Incidentally, the local banks and mortgage company, the department of licensing and the social security office all went easy as pie.)

Dollars and cents aside, there’s then the physical artifacts: what do you want to become of your stuff? I’m not talking about the stuff you name-check in your will — the family opal ring or the signed print or such — I’m talking about your *stuff*. Your clothes, shoes, etc. mainly. In my mom’s case, she had a lot of nice, barely worn things from a stretch of cruising. The nice things got donated to a local women’s shelter, as did unopened extras of toiletries and such. There were also some not-nice things, and those went into the trash. (I don’t think my mom ever considered it but I think she would have agreed with a women’s shelter and would’ve disagreed on the “not nice” label). Learning: if you have a preference, spell out where you want your stuff to go. If you don’t, spell out that it’s up to the person executing the estate.

It probably comes as no surprise that I processed this grief the way I process most everything — there was an Excel spreadsheet, a detailed One Note; there was lots of productive activity, there was lots of avoidance of the icky, emotional deluge (which didn’t turn out to be much because, as I sorted out with my therapist, I’d been grieving since she got admitted to the hospital)– but I hope that the learnings from this will help you and/or yours in how you approach your preparations, perhaps as a New Years’ resolution.

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