Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Bits & pieces here & there

So, my little funyuns, from the last entry it would seem as if there's nothing left to tell. The estate is closed with probate, the house is sold, everyone can go on their merry way. But what I've found is that bits and pieces still trickle in. Even now, I am not certain that I've seen the last of Things That Need To Be Done. For your personal edification, a list!

  • Since all the utilities at the house were in my name, the final bills didn't finish coming in until February.
  • Still having to deal with renewals to subscriptions that had been already canceled. What, don't these people put notes in their customer service systems anymore?? Sent a terse and annoyed note to Decent Housekeeping when they claimed that my mother had requested renewal in October 2009 (may I remind you that she passed 12/2008?) and where was their money?
  • The IRS. While my mother's estate was way under the cutoff for having to file estate taxes, I still have to file my mother's personal taxes for the tax year 2008. Tip: make sure you keep all tax forms that will arrive as you sell property and adjust/close out financial products. Do as I say and not as I have done: get an accountant as soon as you can. I got murdered on my own taxes for 2008 due to the disbursement of some of my mother's financial products and if I'd had an accountant in pocket before any of that happened, I'm pretty certain that I'd have been able to avoid the worst of it.
  • Depending on the if you donate and to whom, there may be follow-up contact. I just got a call today from the folks who got the car to let me know it'd been sold and now they're sending me a 1098 for my 2009 taxes. Since the car was deeded to me in probate, the tax implication is mine.
  • Occasional updates on the house renovation, purely my own doing as I'm excited to see what they've done with it; all reports say it's fantastic and I'll be getting pictures at some point.
So that's it for the time being. As illustrated by the above list, I don't doubt that this is completely over just because it's done in court, not by a long shot. After a year of potholes, speed bumps and snares, I can't help but hold my breath thinking that something or someone else is going to come flailing out of the sky to drop some fresh new hell on my head, but until that happens, I'll keep my head down and step lively on.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Closing this, closing that.

So months went by with me working with businesses with whom my mother held accounts. It got to the point where I began to judge the worth of the company by whether they offered condolences when I told them why I was calling; how insane is that?

As I got closer to the time when I could consider the sale of the house, I began to go through the marketing correspondence I'd received that I mentioned in the the last entry and to research them intensely. One particular business had contacted me via mail in a consistent yet respectful fashion and I began to lean towards them. I wasn't overly impressed with the website at first, but a business really can't and shouldn't be judged wholly on their web presence alone. As a research librarian, I've had to evaluate an insane amount of websites and have often found hidden treasures often overlooked simply because they didn't have the whiz-bang bells and whistles of other sites peddling similar products.

As mentioned previously, I could not liquidate any of my mother's property due to the vague wording in her will until I closed on the estate. I received the notice from the court in September telling me that time period for creditors to make claims to the estate had expired and I could now proceed with the paperwork required to close the estate. After looking over it, I knew that there was no way in hell that I was going to be able to do it without legal assistance and decided to take the court's advice and hired a lawyer. If you're going to do this, shop carefully. The main prerequisites are that the lawyer is familiar with probate/estate proceedings in the county where your parent died and also practices there (I put out a call for recommendations on LinkedIn and got a few responses from lawyers who knew estate law in my preferred state/county but practiced in the state I lived; not helpful). I eventually hooked up with a solo practitioner, which eventually presented its own set of challenges. Because my own experience with the legal profession was limited to what is known as Big Law, I was accustomed to the speed that having many minions (of which I was one) at one's beck and call produced. I had to learn the art of patience and biting my tongue when it came to dealing with a solo practitioner with a staff of...two.

So as it became clearer when I might actually close the estate with probate, I contacted the business I had chosen to assist in the sale of the house sometime in November. Delightful people, they were able to give me an offer on the house very quickly after they'd done a walk through (their names will only be of use to you if you have or are looking for property in the limited area of the South in which they operate, so I shall not include their names here; just ask if you're interested). After that, they took care of everything necessary, down to performing the title search on the property. I stayed in constant contact with them; providing them with every piece of information they required every step of the way in an ASAP fashion much to their delight because I am OCD like that.

So while the work with the lawyer and the house buying folks was either humming or dragging along, I began working on clearing out the house. The plan was to simply donate everything that a local charity (recommended by the house buyers) would take, which was a great deal (even the car!). On one of my myriad trips to the house, they met me for a walk through to determine how much manpower and truck space they would need for the pick up. I agreed to pack up the house, as it was a great deal and they really didn't have that much manpower. After about the third or fourth trip, I realized that I was insane if I thought I'd be able to do it all myself and besides, by now, I was facing serious burnout. Additionally, work with the lawyer had progressed and the estate had closed, so time was running out (real estate closing is time sensitive, as some actions like the results of the aforementioned title search can expire), so I gave in and hired a moving company I'd used personally before to do the rest of the packing. I knew that the charity wasn't going to take everything, so I hired 1-800-GOT-JUNK to do the final clean out on the same day after the charity was finished. Here's another tip I learned: if you don't get to talk to the people who are doing the actual physical labor when you set up these appointments, make sure you find a way to do so before they arrive. Both the laborers for the charity and Got Junk had no idea exactly how big the job was until they arrived, even though I'd been painfully explicit with the scheduler at the call center for GJ and the charity staff who had actually seen what was in the house. Because of that, both teams had to schedule return dates to finish the job. Well, GJ didn't, they just hauled everything that didn't fit in the truck out into the driveway and thankfully came by the next morning to scoop it up. You'll also want to schedule this kind of work beginning early in the morning, as it will take a great deal longer than you might suspect. As it was, I didn't get to start the 2.5 hour trek back to my own home until around 9PM.

So we're almost at the end here, folks. Oh, I did promise to relate how I railed against Southern etiquette. What I did-or didn't do-flies in the face of old school proprieties. When you get married, you receive gifts for which you are required to send thank you notes. No problem there. When you have a housewarming party, it's a very kind thing to also send thank you notes to those who bring gifts. Sure, I can get with that. A baby shower? Same thing. But my internal thank you note machine came to a grinding, screeching spectacular halt when it came to considering sending thank you notes to folks who had sent flowers (which we'd requested they not do) or other memorial type..things. Death is not a planned event, and I'd required nothing from anyone. I paid the individuals who had provided their services as required and in some cases, well and above that. I sincerely and fervently thanked everyone on the spot who had helped out with the funeral and home visitation and then some. But the thought of sitting down and going through the cards and the visitation book to pen thank you notes did nothing but make me even more depressed and strangely distraught than I already was over the shock of mother's death. To me, it seemed to elongate the grieving and I just. Couldn't. Do it. So shoot me.

Next: tying up loose ends.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

wrangling the bills

I don't know how often you sit down to have a gander at your own monthly budget, especially how much money goes out versus how much goes in. But if you do from time to time, you'll know just how many places your money goes. So since my mother never discussed her money with me, I had to play super sleuth to figure out just what companies I would have to contact, inform them that she had passed and find out what the next steps were. As I mentioned before, having the deceased's mail forwarded to you is a huge boon because obviously over time, people are going to want their money, right? It would have also been a great help to forward calls to my mother's home to my own, but I couldn't as my brother remained in the house for a long time after.

Medical bills began to appear first. My mother had just had some appointments with specialists and those came first, followed by some regular appointments (remember, there were no medical bills associated with her death as she was pronounced at home and transported directly to the fun home). I was amazed to discover that these required the least work, as almost all of them were forgiven by the specialists as in "oh no, we don't charge our patients who die, no!" I'm guessing it's a PR thing, you think? Like the cardiologist isn't going to demand payment of $6k from the family of a patient whose heart stopped, right? Lab services were a different matter and had to be paid. Speaking of medical issues, depending on your parent's coverage, you'll need to notify Medicaid/Medicare as well.

Next, decide what you're going to do about the residence. Every case has its own unique factors and mine is no exception. Everyone's perfect scenario is different and mine was to sell the house immediately and place the proceeds in the estate account for later disbursement (and to help pay my mother debts as needed). Alas, another roadblock was thrown in my face via the probate court. You may recall that I mentioned that the will was very specific about the powers and duties of the trustee were very specific, but it didn't matter as that portion was null and void. Unfortunately, the P&D of the PR/executor were outlined in a very brief fashion, one page to be exact. One would assume that the PR would have the same duties, but this is the law we're talking about folks, and you've heard that maxim about following things to the letter of the law? It held true in this situation as far as the court was concerned after a review by the judge herself. So in an ironically weird situation, I could do everything needed to settle my mother's business except for liquidating any of her real property.

Really? Seriously? And when would I be able to do that, exactly? Why, once you close the estate with the probate court. And when will that be? Why, no less than six months after the ad's been placed in the local newspaper announcing that the estate is open for debtors to show up and claim their payments which in my case would be no earlier than September. The house and everything in it would have to sit for awhile. A long while in my point of view. So now this meant that I'd be maintaining two households for at least a year (remember the slightly-diminished capacity sibling? Yes, well he needed somewhere to stay while things got started for his long-term care which he was pretty much pushing against). In my case, I had to keep all utilities going for the house and by the time I realized this, the homeowner's policy had lapsed and once it's lapsed, it's done for and you must purchase a new one which requires current photos of the home in question (add in extra trips to the homestead for me from the neighboring state). I really made the right decision to move back to the South from Michigan when I did because this would have been impossible to deal with from the Frozen North.

So, back to watching the mail. My mother was a periodicals subscribing fool, I tell you. I don't know where she found the time to read everything she was subscribed to and she was subbed to the widest range of stuff I think I've ever seen. Sister to Sister. Ebony. Jet. Us. OK. Guideposts. Ladies Home Journal. Better Homes & Gardens. Vibe. Reader's Digest. True Confessions. Oy. Turned out that most of it was through some clearing house package someone had told her she'd needed, so that made it easy to cancel most of them. But even the magazines wanted an original hard copy of the death certificate (don't forget to buy a LOT of stamps and those 11" by whatever privacy/brown envelopes).

You will also find that there are businesses that watch the announcements in the paper for estates or peruse the public court records in the Internet looking for PRs of estates to hit up with marketing materials. Estate sale companies. Gravestone artisans. Real estate companies. Missives ranging from brow-furrowing hand-scrawled notes to thoughtful printed letters to professional printed bulk drop rate cards. If any of the offers of assistance look interesting or you think you'll need them, by all means CHECK THEM OUT FIRST before you make that call. It's a fairly simple process, the main things is to check them out with the local Better Business Bureau and also see if you can find if the business in question pops up on any review sites with negative or positive feedback from former customers. Beware review sites with reviews from the actual company masked as customers to pump up their own ratings. These usually (but not always, of course) give themselves away as word-for-word duplicates on multiple sites.

Like I said before, death is a business and vendors will try to hose you if they can. This is a hard time, but you need to look out for yourself and whatever legacy your folks have left behind now more than ever because now it's only you standing between that legacy and the jackals.

Next: more flailing in the mail and how I railed against Southern etiquette.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

the magic box

The first thing you need to do after being named PR is to set up a tax ID number (like a social security number, but for businesses) with the feds; a fairly simple process you can accomplish over the phone. This is necessary because you'll need it to open an estate bank account. The disbursements of any financial products of which the decedent's heirs are not listed as the beneficiary by name will have to go into the estate account for later disbursement to the heirs upon closing of the estate proceedings. Additionally, any revenue generated from sales of any property of the decedent will be deposited in the estate account as well. This will also be the account that you'll use to settle any debts, like final payments for utilities, court and legal fees, etc. You'll want to get as many certified copies as possible of your PR appointment document in addition to the same of the death certificate (a service of the FH as mentioned previously) because you'll be sending out one of each for just about every account you'll need to close, from banks to utilities.

My mother had never run a household on her own before my father died and the organization of all her personal business papers kind of reflected that. Ever since I was little girl, I remember this box (the same box where the safe deposit box keys were eventually discovered) being used as a repository for important materials and I wasn't allowed anywhere near it.

So, said box is now in my possession after a lifetime of being given the evil eye to stay away from it. Ah, the irony of life is deep.

Because my mother had sort of listened to me when she asked for assistance with my dad's estate (in a cursory fashion, of course), I knew that there were a few accounts of which she had been the beneficiary that would need notifying and possibly final distribution to her heirs, if applicable. I was in luck, after a thorough examination of the box, I was in possession of most of what I needed to start the proceedings. You're going to spend a great deal of time on the phone, so it's best to have everything you need in front of you to get the wheels moving, such as:

  • Your parent's social security number
  • Their complete address
  • The estate tax ID
  • Identifying information for any other heirs besides yourself.
You'll also need access to a fax machine and if you're really lucky, a scanner. Things can move a great deal faster if the businesses you're dealing with will accept PDFs of the necessary documents via email.

I had extra steps here, as my father was a military man and some of my mother's health insurance was courtesy retired veteran benefit programs, not to mention she was also the beneficiary of my father's military pension. The natural segue to this is also notifying the Social Security Administration of their death, because while the creation of the death certificate and FH involvement apparently trips the SSA notification automatically, you still don't want to leave it to chance. Another tip: after you've scrounged around and found every account possible, have your parent's mail forwarded to you. I can guarantee that accounts you never dreamed existed will pop up within months via the mail, but even with that safety net, you will still miss at least one. For example, I ended up having to purchase an entirely new homeowner's policy on the house because someone somewhere dropped the ball and didn't inform the insurance company of my responses to the bank's request that I inform them of the status of the property.

All sorts of these happy little landmines will continually pop up on the landscape throughout this madness. I think they call it "learning".

Next: bills, bills, bills.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Keystone Kops

The one thing mom had always said when she could be put upon to talk about the business of death was "When I die, go to the safe deposit box". That's all she'd say, so I had to assume that's where her will lived. So not too long after dad died, she sent me paperwork to complete so my name would be on the list of those allowed into the box. What was the one thing she didn't do? TELL ANYONE WHERE THE KEYS TO THE FREAKING BOX WERE.

After the funeral, it was imperative that we found the will as soon as possible so that we could start probating her estate with the county probate court. I hadn't thought about the box having keys because silly me, I've never had one myself and I just wasn't focused on the fact that the damned thing would need a key. So we trundled down to the bank, they check the list and then turn to us expectantly and say "now, do you have the key?" *blink* *blink* We dashed back to the house and looked where all the keys to things present and past lived and...no key. I looked in the metal box where all the important papers lived in a jumble. No key. Went through her chest of drawers and jewelry boxes. No key. We ended up having to cough up something like $150 to have a locksmith come in the next day and core the lock in about five seconds. I'm obviously in the wrong line of work. We later discovered that the keys were indeed in The Important Stuff Box, but you had to empty the box folder by folder, envelope by envelope, paper by paper to come across them. Mom had only been to the box once to open it and the tiny, thin keys had become one with the documents they were between. In any event, success! The will did indeed live in the safe deposit box and now the wheels of probate could commence.

Probate step #1: GO TO THEIR WEBSITE. I was very impressed with the simple, yet information laden website of the probate court of my mother's county. Having done a stint as a law librarian, I was accustomed to moving around on legal websites, so this was naturally the first thing I did. I saw more than a handful of people showing up at the court who hadn't a clue what was going on and I could feel the frustration of the court employees. I am a huge proponent of being prepared via surfing organization's websites from restaurants to retail stores to...well, courts. They're there for a reason people and if you don't have the Internet at home, your local public library will be glad to show you how to do research on the 'net. Better still, many local/city/county law libraries are open to the public as well. -end library PSA-

Once I got a look at the legalese that was my mother's will, I knew I was in for it. Current legal wisdom suggests that one update their will every five years or so. My mother's will had not been updated since the day it was created...back in 1976 when my brother and I were still minors. It was very clear what should happen to her estate should both she and my father predecease us. The trustee of their estate was to take control and the guardians were to care for us "in the manner to which they have become accustomed". So the first and very detailed section of the will was null and void since we were no longer minors. The last page stated who the executors (now called personal representative) should be. First, my father. Second, my father's half brother (who was also the appointed guardian along with his now deceased wife). Third, a bank that no longer existed.

In order for me to be appointed PR, I needed witnessed paperwork from all available parties renouncing their claim to being the PR for the estate and nominating me. I had my brother complete the form as well to be on the safe side, my uncle had no issues with it, either. The problem was the now-defunct bank. With the aid of my awesome husband and my ninja-like library research skills, I was able to have him track down what had become of the bank in about three phone calls. Like this: a call to our own local library's reference desk for ideas, 2) on their advice, a call the reference desk of the library in that county and 3) on #2's advice, a call to the banking commission for that county and voila! We got the history of the bank through two or three mutations that eventually became Walkalloverya (right before they got snatched up by Fells Wargo). I assumed wrongly that because they no longer existed that I wouldn't need a form from them, but alas, I was wrong. Eventually, it was simple matter and I was able to have the bank sign off at a local branch in my own state. After a couple of visits to the court with the required paperwork, I was appointed PR.

Next: now the real work begins.

Friday, November 6, 2009

one stop shopping

I found out that you can get a lot of things taken care of at the funeral home. I was un/fortunately aware of most of this due to the fact that I had been part of the Team o' Family that was on hand at the same funeral home for the preparation of my father's burial in 2000. They'll be more than happy to take care of the details and add the costs right in to the final bill. Such as:

  • The newspaper obituary; cost is dictated by length and photo inclusion. I already knew that mom wanted it short, sweet and image-less.
  • The program for the actual funeral; I submitted a photo for this one
  • Procurement of multiple official copies of the death certificate
  • Transportation for the family for the entire day of burial
  • Guestbook, stand for the guestbook and additional chairs for home visitation
And other such random stuff, some of which I am almost certainly forgetting. Another reason it's important to know what's going on with the money is of course, working out payment for the funeral home. In a perfect world, we'd all have pre-paid our funeral expenses, but in my case, all we had was the plot which we weren't really going to use. Most likely because the FH knew our family, I was able to get things rolling with a promise to pay as soon as we liquidated my mother's bank accounts.

The clergy for the funeral was the minister from my mother's church and she did not require payment of any kind, so we planned on giving her an honorarium after the service instead. In some ways, planning and executing my mother's burial felt a lot like doing the same for my wedding except on crack because everything had to happen in less than a week with no advance planning. It's rife with tiny details and even though most of these folks still see you as the six year old they used to know, you're the person in charge now and they will come to you. The questions you get will range from the practical to the 'buh?' Where should donations should be made in lieu of flowers (even though flowers will come anyway)? Since there won't be pallbearers, will there be VIP seating for groups of which the deceased was a member? Who will be riding with the family in the limo and will you need more than one? Very important: who will be speaking in remembrance? Multiple folks? What should the time limit be for each person and how will we keep them on track?

In the end, I just kept it as simple as possible. The one thing I might have done differently was to somehow find a way to let people know ahead of time that she was going to be cremated. I think there was a great deal of suppressed shock when people came into the church to an urn instead of a casket. When it was time for me to speak, I explained it as her request and with some (hopefully) humor. Funny (to me) side story: turns out mom wasn't even in the urn as the Fun Home (nods to Alison Bechdel) still hadn't managed to track down her physician to sign the death certificate and you apparently can't bury (or cremate) a person without it. I think they expected me to wig right out because they didn't tell us until we were piled back into the limo to go to the cemetery, but I actually found it a tremendous hoot.

Next time: WHERE ARE THE KEYS????

Thursday, November 5, 2009

her end was my beginning

I got the call that she was dead through a convoluted process the morning of her 69th birthday in December of 2008 while at work. I'd just been contemplating making the annual birthday call to follow up on the card I'd sent. Seems that my current work number couldn't be found and they'd connected with someone I used to supervise, so he had the onerous task of calling me to tell me my mother was dead. I immediately closed up shop at work, darted home, packed a suitcase and hightailed it the 2.5 hour drive up the road to the neighboring state to the house where I mostly grew up and my mother and brother still lived.

She wasn't sick, it seemed that her heart had just stopped sometime in the early hours of the morning. By the time I made it to the house, the body had already been declared and was on its way to the funeral home. From what I could gather, some sort of deal had been made for one of her doctors to sign off in absentia on the death certificate, which I learned later needed to be completed before my mother's remains could be interred. So you see, the business of death begins immediately.

Is it any wonder people get fleeced during this process? I am fortunate in that years of dealing with various and sundry emergency situations allows me to keep clear and focused, but I saw just how easily someone could run up extraordinary bills in a flash and then spend the rest of their own lives paying for it. The first costs that were cut here were any hospital or ambulance fees as the funeral home actually came and got the body (all of this happened before I got there and I appreciated my people's help in getting the ball rolling). It was the right funeral home (same one almost all of my dad's family used so the knew us and us, them) and I got on the phone with them straightaway to schedule a meeting to work out the funeral and burial details.

People were starting to get word and the phone and doorbell rang nonstop. I left the details of the traditional things to the aunts, uncles and cousins, but my sibling and I had to meet with the minister, scheduled for after the funeral home meeting. We showed up for that (the Team o' Family, I'll call them) and I let the staff know that mom would be cremated. They didn't look too happy about that because I think they thought someone like mom would want a pimped out casket. Well, they were wrong; mom always said she didn't want a huge to do and preferred cremation over being stared at. We're already having to talk about the will because we couldn't move any of her finances to pay for the funeral until we had a look at it. I knew that at least one or two of her bank accounts could be immediately disbursed because I'd already talked to the bank and they'd let me know which of her accounts would require a death certificate and forms to be submitted to different financial institutions before the accounts could be closed or changed and funds released.

Call the bank and find out what they will need FIRST. Make sure NOW that you're listed on the bank's documents that you're the one who gets the money or how it should be split if there's more than one of you. Everyone involved will probably have to sign some sort of paperwork and provide personal identifying information. Like it or not, money will continually pop up at the top of the "what's really important" list.