Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Death and Taxes

I want to thank everyone for their condolences and kind words.  I apologize if you are sick of this subject, but I want to write a few posts about how to protect yourselves from some of the obstacles I had to fight my way through.  People don't want to think about these things, but it really is important to plan ahead for the death of a loved one, especially one who you are dependent upon to some degree.

When the county Coroner takes control of a deceased person, the first thing he does is seal off the location where the deceased was found, and no one is allowed to enter that location until the body and cause of death have been identified.  I am the sole Trustee of my mother's estate, but because she passed away in her house, I was not allowed to go inside of it for several weeks.  All the information I needed to pay her bills was inside her house, so during this period of investigation her bills were not getting paid.

You may think, "So what?  It's not like she needs to worry about her credit rating anymore."

Well, in my case, my mother was also paying the mortgage and insurance on the house my family lives in, and the utilities.  Ultimately, we were paying for it, but she preferred to physically write out the checks for each bill herself using our money.  This meant that we were suddenly under the threat of losing our heat, electricity, water, and even our home.  I had to think fast and do some research to guess which utility companies held her accounts, and immediately transfer them into my name and start paying them myself.  Fortunately, all they needed was the address of our house and not the account numbers, which made the process so much easier.  Transferring the payment of bills doesn't require as much paperwork and secret information as canceling bills.

However, I had no idea what company was funding the mortgage on our house.  I also worried about the landscaping at my mother's house.  I surfed the Internet frantically in search of her neighbors, but they were all very private people and I could not locate any phone numbers for them.  I ended up looking at the street view on Google Maps to get their addresses and mailing them letters, asking them to give my mother's gardeners my name, address and phone number, so that I could keep paying them.  One neighbor called me and told me that the gardeners left when she informed them that my mother died, and no one knew how to contact them to get them back.

My mother had sent me the name and contact information of her estate attorney, but I never paid any attention, because in my mind she had another 10 or 20 years to live.  I didn't write down that contact information in my own phone book, and could not find the little piece of paper she wrote it on anywhere in the house.  My uncle and I started calling around to all the estate lawyers in her area asking if they represented her.  Every lead was a dead end.  So, until I could get into her house, everything would have to remain frozen in time. 

I'm not blaming the Coroner for our predicament.  He was just trying to do what was best for my mother by verifying that this was really her, and that she died from natural causes and not foul play.  Although, it was pretty obvious to both me and the police that it couldn't be anyone else and that this was the natural end of her life.  But, you can never be too careful.

The lesson here is to make sure you have copies of all the pertinent information you would need in the case of your loved one passing away, assuming that you won't be able to get into his or her home.  My father put together an "in case of my death" packet for me years ago, and I put it in my safe deposit box, but all it really contained was a list of all his valuables and where all the keys are located within the house.  He did provide the back door key to his house, but I had to get inside to get the keys to everything else.  It turned out that his valuables were the least of my concerns.  I needed access my parents' address book and their mail more than anything else.

The post office would not forward their mail to me without a Death Certificate, and to this day I still have not received an official copy of that -- only working copies, since they've been unable to determine her cause of death. 

When I finally did get access to her house, I discovered that the police and coroner do not clean up after they've done their investigations.  They had to pretty much ransack both the house and the glove compartment of her car to get all the pertinent information on her and who her next of kin would be to contact.  The place was a mess, so I spent the first few days just picking up, mopping up and airing out the house.  I had company coming for the funeral, and at this point the house wasn't even suitable for habitation.  Paperwork was thrown all over the floors and tables, so I had to sort out what was needed and what could be trashed.

That's when I found the first answer to one of my questions.  I had asked the Coroner who was doing the autopsy to give me an estimated date of death.  Technically, the day a person is found dead is the official date of their death.  In picking up papers, I found my mother's checkbook.  She was right in the middle of paying her tax man and signing her name to the check when all of the sudden her pen went crazy and she never finished signing her name.  She literally died while paying her accountant for his tax services.  How bizarre is that?  It kind of brings new meaning to the phrase "death and taxes".

I could tell from the date on the check that she had died on March 20th, which was the first day of spring.  Of course, that upset me because I had been praying for spring to come, because this has been such a hard winter.  Had I known that date was slated for the end of my mother's life, I would have accepted all that snow and ice and those hurricane-force winds for eternity,

That date correlated with all the people who had tried to contact her, but couldn't after that date.  I also found several people who spoke to her in the few days before her death, and they all said she looked good and was chipper and happy... with one exception.  One lady said she had noticed that my mother lost weight, which is really saying something because my mother was always exceptionally thin.

I also found my father's Death Certificate in the paperwork and was shocked to find that my mother died on the same date as him exactly 10 years later.  How bizarre is that?  His certificate is dated for March 21st, but we know he died on the 20th like my mom, and was found on the 21st by the hospice care staff.  The more I dug through paperwork, the more connections kept coming out, leaving me feeling like I was experiencing something truly surreal.

The landscaping was overgrown and dying without the care of gardeners.  I found out that my mother had turned off the automatic sprinkler system to conserve water during a series of winter rainstorms.  I rehired her gardeners and asked them to take responsibility for the watering.  My mother had her sprinkler control box inside her house, so they had to relocate the box to the outside where they could access it in times when no one was in the house.  The police had broken not just a window, but had broken down the door, so I had to pay to replace that out of my own packet.  

As word spread about my mother's passing, people came out of the woodwork to offer their help, even people I'd never met before and people I hadn't seen in 30 years.  Most had good intentions, but there was a fair share of vultures.  It was frustrating trying to figure out who I could and couldn't trust.  In the end I decided I would accept help in planning the funeral and reception, but I would not accept any more help in dealing with my mother's assets unless it was from family and very close friends.  I really got tired of strangers and distant acquaintances asking me nosy questions about my inheritance and the value of her house.  She wasn't even in her grave yet, and people were talking excitedly about her possessions.  I found that to be incredibly tactless and tried my best to change the subject and bring it back to my mother's memory.

Everyone had someone to recommend or refer me to.  I had about a dozen names and phone numbers of real estate agents and estate sales representatives given to me by various people, only to find out later that these concerned individuals would be getting, or thought they would be getting, finder's fees by connecting us up.  When I chose someone other than who they recommended, I could hear the frustration and disappointment in their responses.  I was exhausted from having all these business people circling me when all I wanted to do was to think, and be alone in the house with my mother's perfume scents.

As the days wore on, I got bitchier.  Each time another person brought up "the value" of something, I'd say, "Look.  My mother just died.  I don't want to discuss her things."  It was like everyone around me was in this mad rush to either buy or sell or donate or throw away everything in her house, and I just wanted to leave things the way she had them for a while so that I could feel like my mother was still with me. 

Now that I am back home and have others taking care of my mother's house, my phone has finally quieted down.  My goal now is to finish sorting through the paperwork and to do my own research and make my own decisions about how to handle the assets.  Before all of this, I was unemployed and desperate enough to be considering minimum wage positions.  Now I have a job as Trustee to an estate, and it is going to be a full time position that should last anywhere between six months to a year.

I am currently in the beginning stage of just paying off her debts, transferring accounts and deeds, and closing out her accounts which will no longer be needed.  My next post will include my review of various well known companies and how they treated me in my time of need.  Some will impress you with their compassionate customer service, while others will leave you shaking your head in disgust.  Hopefully, my experiences will help you decide who you will or won't do business with in the future.


Dreaming said...

Wow, you certainly bring up some points I had never thought about and never knew about. How tough for you to have to go through all of this. Thanks for being so generous and turning it all into a learning experience for your readers. I truly appreciate it. I'll be talking with my dad about much of this. He has shared some things with me (where he keeps important papers, names & phone numbers of his accountant, etc) but that was years ago - we need to update that information as well as get more.

Sydney_bitless said...

Very sorry about your mothers death. Even though we were with my grandmother when she died there was a whole bunch of garbage we had to go through with her estate and even now 5 or so years later I am not totally sure it's completely under wraps. Hang in there.

Mikey said...

Wow, that is some stuff I hadn't thought about. There is so much to do when a loved one passes. I'm interested to see the next post. People are scavengers, always out for whatever they can get. I'm sorry it's been so rough on you, and probably will be for a while. My thoughts and prayers are with you.

Leah Fry said...

Once again, thank you for sharing these experiences. I have never had to deal with this and wouldn't have a clue.

fernvalley01 said...

As sad as it is that you had to experience this and all it came with I am impressed that you are choosing to share the experience to help others. Your mom would be proud I am sure

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this. Wonderful of you to think of helping others at this time. So sorry for your loss.

Maia said...

Ahh, I hope things settle down for you. Don't let the vultures get you down and you don't have to do anything until you are darned good and ready to.

Mrs Mom said...

Oh NuzMuz, I am so sorry to be catching up and come across this. Dear Husband and I now know all.too.well. the stress and frustrations you are dealing with, as we too are facing forms of it on our side of the country too.

I was so saddened to read of the loss of your Mom too. And wanted to kick the tar out of the vultures for you, as we pretty much have with the flock that roosted here as well. Take care, and know that we'll be thinking of you.

Laughing Orca Ranch said...

Thanks for sharing your personal experiences concerning the death of loved one and always keeping it real.
It's something we all have to consider and plan for, so there's no reason to sugar coat it or sweep it under the rug.

How ironic and surreal those coincidences are relating to your Mother's and Father's date of death. And the Death and Taxes correlation would almost be funny, if it weren't so sad.


Reddunappy said...

We were very lucky that my husbands folks took care of everything before they passed.
All we had to do was take care of the checking and savings and car, and that was it.
We had purchased the property years ago and the oldest brother moved into the mobile on the property. The three boys split everything evenly. The oldest had power of attorney. The hardest part was the things. They really didnt have much.
Hang in there, it all goes so fast in retrospect.

Evelyn said...

So sorry you are having to go through this. When my father passed away I knew he wanted to be cremated. When talking with the mortuary I happened to mention my brother....guess what I had to have him sign that it was OK for my father to be cremated instead of buried. I hadn't spoken to my brother for nearly 20 years...I had a heck of a time contacting him and just in time as they were going to take my father and bury him in another state in spite of what I told them. Please let others know in writing what you want to save those of us left from more grief in a time of sadness.

Breathe said...

There is some comfort in knowing the day, seeing the connections. I honestly have no clue about these things with my mother or father, and need to.

My thoughts and prayers are with you, it's a heck of a mountain to climb.

achieve1dream said...

Wow I didn't know any of this stuff. I'm glad you're doing these posts, though I know it much be painful to have to relive it all for us. We do really appreciate the knowledge and help we gain through reading it. You did great standing up for yourself and your mother.

lytha said...

we spent the weekend at the hospital and sadly my husband lost his grandmother on saturday. his mother was there to hold her mother as she died, and her pain was so intense i could barely stand to look at her. losing a mother is something i have not been through.

i've never seen my husband grieve but it was a horrible time this weekend. i cannot stand to see him like this and tried to help but he needed me to just be silent and be there (hard for me to be silent!).

one thing that oma could have done to help her family - she, like me, never cared about funeral arrangements. she said "just put me in an orange box." now i've learned that if you don't specify, the family must. now my mother in law must make arrangements with no preparation or idea how.

having our first family meal without her was almost too much to bear - opa is alone the first time in 60 years. his grieving is also horrible to see. we spent 10 hours with him sunday trying to comfort him. i cannot imagine what he's going through. i'm so thankful he lives in the same house as the family.

i'd like to blame the hospital for her unexpected death because they doubled a medicine even after being told five times to only give her a half dose. wish i knew what med that was but she only had a few hours more after that mistake.

however the room was so tragically peaceful after she was no longer trying to breathe. i cannot help but feel relieved for her.