Monday, May 31, 2021

Estate Planning

2020 was a horrible year for many people for a variety of reasons. In addition to what most people faced, I lost both my parents last year. My father, who lived in Florida, died in April and my mother, who lived in New York City, died in September.

Just to be clear, this post is not in any way an attempt to garner pity but to help others learn from my experiences.

When my father passed, it wasn't a complete shock as he’d been fighting cancer for a number of years. As an engineer by training, his estate was fairly well organized, which greatly simplified things for his wife after he passed as all the legal and other end of life arrangements and documents had been prepared. There were of course some snags and surprises here or there, but for the most part my father had done his best to ease the path for his wife and heirs after he was gone.

My mother’s passing was more of a shock, but the post-death situation was even more so. She had not left a will, or any other end of life legal documents, that we could find when we were able to get to her NYC apartment in mid-October. The only thing she’d done was pre-pay her funeral expenses. While this helped, trying to deal with her estate from eight hundred miles away without those documents was challenging.

As my older brother no longer lives in the country, it fell to me to take care of things which I had to do remotely and, during the time of COVID-19, with all the shutdowns and restrictions New York City could apply. I was able to get a copy of her death certificate from the county which enabled me to contact her creditors and get that part moving.

With the help of a cousin who used to practice family law, I was able to apply to become Administrator of the estate. This was simplified due to the value of my mother’s possessions falling below an arbitrary line and therefore considered a “small” estate. I mailed the paperwork, properly signed and notarized, to the country court at the end of October.

This is where things took a turn for the surreal. It took over two business weeks for my paperwork to get from Knoxville Tennessee to New York City, with half of that just getting from Knoxville to Memphis! But it did finally arrive. 

I’d been advised to let some time pass due to the offices being closed and people working from home, and for three and a-half months I heard nothing. Finally, in mid-February I called the court, only to get a recording telling me the offices were still closed and try an email. My first two emails went unanswered, the third received a terse and uninformative reply. Six weeks after the first email, I finally managed to reach someone who could help. 

At this point, things started to move faster. It turned out there was a piece of information missing which they’d known about since mid-November but hadn’t informed me. With that corrected, I was told the paperwork would be mailed out by the end of the week.

Two weeks later I still hadn’t received anything, so I emailed again. Someone had forgotten to put it in the mail and I was told it would go out on the following Monday. It arrived the next Friday.

At this point, it was over seven months since she’d died and because there was no will or a named beneficiary, we hadn’t been able to clear out her apartment, close her bank account, order her tombstone, or deal with half-a-dozen other issues.

A week after the paperwork arrived, we were back up in New York City working on all those things. While both physically and emotionally exhausting, the week was very productive, thanks in large part to some wonderful people who looked for solutions when others would have shrugged their shoulders.

The author's mother's apartment mid-cleanout

The week after we got back with a carload of books, photos, and other keepsakes, I was able to get a Federal Tax ID number and open an estate bank account so I could start dealing with estate expenses and, assuming there’s anything left, disbursement to my mother’s heirs. 

Most of this aggravation could have been avoided if my mother had legally named a beneficiary or estate executor, and detailed instructions regarding what she wanted done would have helped even more. However, as with many people, she didn’t want to consider her own mortality too closely.

The most important lesson to be learned here is get your legal house in order while you have time to consider options and make your own decisions. Everyone dies eventually, so make it easier on those left behind by managing your estate as much as you can. Additionally, don’t forget to inform responsible parties and update any instructions as circumstances change.

For a tie-in to Erin’s post on shredders, cull your old documents regularly. This was not a habit either of my parents had as we found paperwork, including tax returns, that went back to the 1940s. Unless you run a business, there’s rarely a need to keep more than seven years of tax returns or one year of credit card statements, utility bills, etc. Make it a regular part of your annual routine to purge older papers. Consider it a favor to your heirs that results in less clutter for you as a bonus feature. 

1 comment:

  1. That's a good start. The simple reality is that if you don't have any kind of estate plan, it can take _years_ to resolve even a simple estate. I was my dad's sole heir, and it took us a bit over 2 1/2 years to probate his estate, after he shredded his will in a fit of dementia-induced pique.
    I generally wind up referring people over to LegacyShield ( if they need a simple/quick solution. That's the equivalent of about $3000 worth of lawyer, and the walkthroughs are IMHO worth it.


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