Caring for aging or ill parents is not for the faint of heart. If I’ve learned nothing else, it’s that death is hard. Not just hard to grieve but also hard to navigate. I’m still navigating it, but I’d like to give a few tips and reminders if you are either caring for or even just helping after the death of an elderly/aging/infirm relative. I’m going to refer to the main characters as parents but if you’re dealing with an aunt and uncle, a grandmother and grandfather, or a sick brother and brother-in-law…doesn’t matter. Consider it spouse and spouse in general.
Also, this may include references to death that seem cold and insensitive. Believe me, they are not intended to be cold but factual. They are not meant to seem as if grieving is an emotionless time. It is not. But the reality of slogging through the legal and fiduciary responsibilities after a loved one passes is that most people involved that are not YOU don’t know the decedent, nor do they really care. Only YOU care and you can’t expect external entities to truly do more than say, “I’m sorry for your loss”.
So put on your game face and read on.
- Talk about the sick family member’s wishes. Discussion on a regular basis helps alleviate any confusion at the point of death. Many churches, funeral homes, and hospices have paperwork that can help you get the end-of-life wishes transcribed and on paper so that at the point of death, there’s no running around trying to figure out what to do.
- This step may include whether a funeral is planned, what kind of pre-funeral gathering may be expected, and/or what type of internment is to occur. Consider detailing out things such as wake/viewing clothes for the decedent, funeral notices and obituaries, philanthropic donations vs. flowers, photos to be used during celebration of life.
- If a viewing is to be held, consider having the clothing picked out, cleaned, and then stored prior to death so that no “surprises” happen (there’s a marinara sauce stain on dad’s shirt).
- If possible, make arrangements with a funeral home, crematorium, or religious organization to have a wake, viewing, funeral, internment, and/or celebration of life.
- Update wills. This is important if property is involved and of course if multiple beneficiaries are involved. For married couples, frequently a “sweetheart will” is drawn up. “When I die, my spouse gets everything” is typically the outcome of a sweetheart will. Ensure any property or finances that are being willed to someone ASIDE from a spouse are detailed out in a will.
- Update beneficiaries of life insurance policies. Don’t assume the will covers it because it doesn’t. Beneficiaries are on file with the insurance companies.
- Try to get all important paperwork into one spot. Banker’s boxes (cardboard boxes with snugly fitting covers) can be labeled as “Important Post-Death Paperwork” and stored so that everything is in one spot. This just makes life easier after the fact.
- Consider power of attorney and medical power of attorney. Also, having a living will or statement of DNR is helpful.
There are likely more than these few things but if my loved ones had done some of these things, life might have been a little bit easier. Talking about dying with the dying family member is hard. It’s emotional. It takes some significant emotional fortitude.
The following items are reminders. If you’ve gone through the above, you may not need all the below, but it’s better to be prepared than to have to play catch up afterwards.
Parent death (one parent remaining):
- Get at least 10 copies of the certificate of death. That may seem excessive, but you never know when needing a death certificate will crop up. Most places will settle for a photocopy however some need the CERTIFIED, STAMPED death certificate. Better to have 10 and need 5 than to have to scramble and wait for more copies.
- Ensure the will is filed through the court so that all property is transferred into the remaining spouse’s ownership. It may be that the same person who remains is the “owner” of the property but better to file the will than to find out later you haven’t done what you need to do.
- Contact any agency (such as pension disbursement org) to inform of the death. In some instances, pensions are based on full month of life, so you may be required to refund some of the pension if you are not a beneficiary of it.
- Visit all utilities and switch accounts to the remaining spouse’s name. Bullet 2 covers that this may not ALWAYS be necessary but better to be safe than sorry.
- Publish the obituary. Lots of times, this provides an opportunity for extended family/friends to know about the death. This also allows for extended acquaintances to make in-memoriam donations if desired.
- Update will. Especially if the wills were written as sweetheart wills, make sure that a new executor/executrix is designated, new beneficiaries are detailed, and any property and money specifics are updated. If possible, check and double check you are aware of the notarizations and certifications appropriate for your state. Mostly important if the will is written in a state NOT the state the decedent lives in.
- In the same way, update beneficiaries of insurance policies, annuities, and any retirement/savings accounts that remain. Make sure documentation (policies, statements, account details) is stored with all pertinent documents (see Banker’s box suggestion above)
- File a final 1040 for the decedent.
Parent death (last parent):
- See steps 1 & 2 above. Both are important here. Also, don’t forget #8
- If you are the executor/executrix, make sure you are clear on your responsibilities. If the estate is significant, you may require a lawyer’s assistance. Use the lawyer who wrote the will if possible. If not, seek a counsel who is savvy in estate law IN THE STATE OF THE DECEDENT.
- If needed, file for a letter testamentary and being the process of opening an estate account for your deceased parent.
- Ensure you are following the laws within your state/county for probating the will. Each state is slightly different and what is required to fully execute a will differs. Consider searching the internet for Clerk of Court in your county or Estate filing in your county.
- Contact any agency (such as pension disbursement organizations) to inform of death. The faster you do this, the better. As stated above in #3, some pensions are based on full month of life.
- It’s always good to know the contents of the estate. You may have to provide an inventory of the estate assets based on your state’s laws. If you haven’t already detailed out a list of assets, consider doing it before you are too deep into the execution of the will.
Some things I found when dealing with my mom’s estate.
- Even though mom’s assets were minimal, they included real property thus it was considered a will that needed to be probated.
- Almost everyone involved in my mom’s estate changing to my hands needed a letter testamentary. Admittedly, my parents never updated beneficiaries after my dad died so life insurance policies were “sweetheart” – mom was dad’s beneficiary and dad was mom’s…. but he was already dead.
- Power of attorney ends upon death. If you are your parents’ power of attorney, it’s never a bad idea to do things such as ensuring bank accounts have right of survivorship and you have signature ability (I became a co-owner of my mom’s account).
- Most utilities are “okay” with you just providing a copy of the death certificate to take over paying for the utility but in some instances such as energy cooperatives, there are dividend/rights of ownership that can accrue. I found that the cooperative here was more than happy to switch the name on the account but when it came to the dividend, I couldn’t lay claim to it without the letter testamentary from the court.
- I found that the funeral home wasn’t overly helpful with “what’s next” although they supply a one-sheet of things you *may* must do, they don’t know anything. I also found that many people you encounter “can’t give out legal advice” so while you may not have to have a lawyer, you may wind up consulting one. Always look for a lawyer who knows estate law because the twists and turns I’ve encountered would probably baffle a lawyer that isn’t familiar.
- Take notes as you move through the process. Keep everything together and even if you think stuff isn’t related, just keep your paperwork all in one place. If you aren’t a filing cabinet kinda person, the banker’s box may be your best friend.
- Although no one knows anything (generally, you find that most people cop to ignorance), be nice. If you are kind to people as you slog through this process, you will find that people are kind back to you. It’s not their fault they don’t know. Even if they’ve talked about the process a thousand times, if they haven’t walked through it, they don’t know. If you are kind to them, typically the kindness is returned.
- Don’t be afraid to say you don’t know or don’t understand when people toss legalese at you. Make them stop and explain their jargon. We aren’t all graduates of Harvard Law, so it’s good to ask people to speak plainly.
This is not even close to an exhaustive list. I may try to update this blog as I learn more, but this could get you started.
I truly believe that the more you do while everyone is still alive, the better off you are. Details may seem picky but the reality is, details help insure your wishes are carried out after you are gone. Wills, beneficiaries, inventories … they are all important and should be kept up to date. Remember as you list out your wishes, the will is a legal representation of YOUR wishes regarding YOUR assets upon YOUR death. If you want to leave everything to your favorite charity, that’s your wish and you should detail it in your will. Also, if there are particular assets you’d like to leave to particular people or organizations, put it in your will.