Wow - what a whirlwind of a month! It’s hard to believe that we are officially on the downhill slide of the month but we are. January is starting to shut down, there’s the promise of snow on the horizon for the weekend, NFL playoffs are happening, most of our college brats have returned back to school and we are settling in to ride out the remainder of the winter season. After the hustle and hurry of the holiday season, I’m totes down to be somewhat in hibernation mode for a bit.
As many of you know, it was a challenging holiday season for me with the loss of my dad. I actually just returned back to the east coast on Monday afternoon after spending a week in Montana with my mom and my brother and his family. My Rob was actually able to fly in for about 36 hours and be there for the celebration of my dad’s life which was such a gift. And being there to simply be my mom’s soft place to land and help however I could - it was a blessing. For me, my brother and, most importantly, my mom.
What is also was for me was a huge education. On what to expect when a parent passes away. What as a parent and an adult nearing the downhill stage of my life - what I am doing right and good lord what I’m doing not right. So much of this you simply don’t know because unless you’ve been through it, there’s not too many ways to prepare for it. Many of us can’t afford an attorney or advisor that can set us up for all the unknowns and prepare us for what happens when someone close to you dies.
So I’m going to share my knowledge. I promise you it’s worth the read if for no other reason that to do your own i’s and cross your t’s. To make sure your affairs are in order and to have a conversation with your significant other, your adult children, your parents. This one is for every person out there that needs a reminder, a checklist of some sort, a guide to get you moving in the right direction so that should something happen - those left behind are not left floundering with no idea where to start.
Things to Know - Child
If your parents are still living and you haven’t gone over these things, it’s a good idea to do so. I was fortunate that much of this my dad had gone over with my mom and my brother so there were two people that had a solid understanding of his wishes and much of the paperwork was in order or easy to locate.
1. Know where the important papers are.
Someone needs to know where the important papers are. The will, life insurance policies, military paperwork etc. Not having to search for those papers saves you not only time but a lot of back peddling in the days following loss.
2. Have an idea of what their wishes are.
My dad was very clear about his wishes. He wanted to be cremated. He had a few personal items that he wanted given to certain people. Not only was this outlined in the will but he also had a conversation with both my mom and my brother to make sure that they were both aware of what he wanted and could carry out his wishes. It is not an easy conversation to have but at the end of our days, respecting the wishes of our loved ones is something most of us want to do. And it’s even better if that is recorded on paper and notarized to alleviate arguments amongst the family.
3. Know what your strengths and weaknesses are and how you can help.
We all have strengths and weaknesses and ways in which we are best suited to help. My brother helped tremendously with ideas for memorializing my dad, helped with phone calls and was a source of support for my mom in the days immediately following the death of our dad. I was able to come at a time when not only could I be a presence in the house but also help with decision making and some of the more difficult phone calls that revolved around letting businesses, creditors, etc. that my dad had passed away and what did they need and what did we need to do. Have an honest discussion with your parents or your siblings that in the event of a death, whom is going to step up to the plate and help the surviving parent and in what manner.
4. Make sure there is a durable power of attorney in place.
In most cases, this is the surviving spouse. As it was with my parents. But when I tell you that sometimes the smallest task is overwhelming after loss - it’s not an exaggeration. Having an additional power of attorney in place with a sibling, a child, a trusted advisor that can speak with insurance companies, banks, etc. can be of great value to a grieving parent and allow you to help get the ball rolling when they are simply trying to survive day to day.
5. Be aware of your resources.
This was huge for me. I happened to have a great group of people that I could turn to with questions - people I trusted. I knew someone that had a health insurance advisor, a friend that’s an attorney that was crucial for bouncing legal questions off of, close friends that had recently lost that were able to give me a heads up to what my mom was feeling and what to expect. Make a mental note of people that you know you can bounce things off of and get their input because EVERYTHING costs money when someone dies and whereas funeral homes, attorneys, banks, etc. are sympathetic to your loss, that sympathy rarely crosses over onto the invoice.
Things to Know - Spouse/Parent
I’ll be honest - I thought Rob and I were prepared in the event one of us died. We have life insurance, we have a will, we have adult children, etc. We are so not prepared. But we will be. This list is so important and even I will be printing it off and taking care of these things in the upcoming months.
1. Where there’s a Will, there’s a way.
If you don’t have a will, get one. If you have a will, you need to give it a good once over once a year. Our lives change at a rapid pace, our children become adults, we are simply pawns in this chess game called life. A will is crucial and making sure that it is up to date on a yearly basis means that as life changes, your will reflects your up to date wishes. And it doesn’t cost hundreds of dollars and you don’t have to go through a lawyer. There are countless websites where you can have a will drawn up and you essentially fill in the blanks for around $100 or so depending on the value of your estate, etc. Print it out and take it to a bank or a notary and sign. And have a minimum of three copies - one for you, one for a close friend or member of the family and for whomever you have listed as your power of attorney or an adult child. Put the will in a place that is easy to find and make sure that both you and your significant other know where it is located.
2. Place all your important papers together.
Again - this is so crucial. Deeds to property, the will, pass codes to bank accounts, birth certificates, military paperwork, life insurance paperwork, anything and everything that is of importance should be put together. I don’t care if you place it in folders, if you label it with sticky notes, however you want to organize it. Having all of that paperwork in one place and in order saves so much time in the event of a loss because it gives the surviving person one place to go to get everything. And make sure that someone knows where that paperwork is. When simply existing from hour to hour takes effort, not having to worry about searching for the paperwork is a gift.
3. Understand the paperwork.
This goes hand in hand with number 2 above. It’s great to have all the paperwork in order but what does it mean? Where do you call? What do you need? Why not make those calls now? Call the insurance company and ask them flat out - in the event of a loss, what paperwork do you require? When is the policy paid out? Look up the deed to your properties or property. If it says ‘joint tenancy’ or ‘tenancy in its entirety’ you do NOT have to go through probate to have the surviving spouse’s name removed. You can contact your county courthouse, fill out the paperwork and it's done. Titles on vehicles - often times you can contact the RMV and with a death certificate, the other spouse’s name is removed from the title. At no cost. Health insurance - what if the spouse that dies is the one that carried it? How long are you covered? What about social security? There are death benefits that are paid out. Have a spouse that’s a veteran? My dad was. There is a veteran’s death benefit that is paid to the surviving spouse or children. Take a day, pour a cup of coffee and make the phone calls. Get all the information. I can’t stress enough how knowing these things now and having all of the information written down can be sanity and time saving when loss occurs.
4. Do not assume all legal advice is the end all be all.
This is a true story and happened when I was in MT. We had an appointment with an attorney to go over what I believed to be some military paperwork. However when I opened the envelope from the attorney's office, it was filled with a questionnaire about probate. I called the attorney and said there must have been some confusion - we weren’t coming in to discuss probate, we were coming to speak about other matters. I was then told that my mom would have to go through probate if they had joint assets that totaled more than $50,000. And all my mom is seeing is attorney bills piling up at a rapid rate. I cancelled the appointment, reached out to my husband’s best friend whom happens to be an attorney and asked him. He did not know MT law but gave me a direction to go in with regards to the joint assets. And guess what - NO probate was necessary. That’s not to say that the attorney would not have settled everything in court for my mom and had it all taken care of. I’m saying that with our friend’s advice, my mom was able to make a few phone calls to the courthouse, the RMV, etc. and take care of those things directly with them - FOR FREE! Talk to other friends that have gone through loss, get their opinion, talk with attorney friends. Don’t assume that just because it came from a lawyer or an attorney that it is the gospel.
5. If you have adult children, make sure there is a durable power of attorney in place.
I will be doing this this spring as I now have two adult children. In the event that something were to happen to Rob or I, I want my children to have the right to speak with attorneys, banks, etc. and make decisions if one of us is just not able to. Or at least get the ball rolling. I witnessed for myself that making the smallest of decisions is difficult when you are grief stricken. I would never make decisions for my mom; however, I feel better knowing that I can talk to attorneys, banks, etc. and answer as many question as possible so that she doesn’t have to keep answering the same questions over and over again. If I can take care of some of that legwork for her - I want to. And I want to be sure that my children have that as well in the event their dad or I are in need.
6. Have those conversations with your significant other/kids.
Again, especially if you have adult children, make sure they know your wishes. I have talked with Rob and Lexi about what my wishes are - cremation over burial. Music I want played, who I want to give my eulogy. Morbid sad conversations - of course they are. But in the end, this makes things easier on them and that’s what is important to me. And I need to get it all in writing and put it in the safe with the rest of our documents - on my to do list. We don’t do our children any favors by being too scared to talk to them about it. We only make things harder on them in the event that something does happen.
People, death blows. And it is a fact of life. You can’t run from it, hide from, pretend it isn’t there or coming for all of us at some point in time. And so many of us are not prepared. And we aren’t prepared because preparing for vacation is fun. Preparing for our death is not. But when we are not prepared it leaves a mess behind for our spouses, our children, our loved ones. And who wants to leave a mess for those we love?
Get your affairs in order. I promise you it will bring peace of mind. Have those tough discussions, get a will drawn up, take a day and collect all of your paperwork. Make those phone calls and find out what you need to know now. Understand the legal jargon, know what probate is in your state and make sure that you have protected yourself, your family. A bit of work now can save your family headaches, heartaches and most likely some family drama in the long run.
I truly was not prepared for the loss of my dad. You would think that where he had been battling cancer for quite some time and lived almost five years past what they said he would that I would be ready. You’re not. There are times that you forget, it has almost a surreal quality about it. And then it hits you like a tidal wave. It took me two days of being home before I could even go in my parent’s room and place my fingertips on his urn, sit in his recliner. Delivering his eulogy was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life and one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever written. His celebration of life was truly a celebration - a lot of laughter, a lot of memories, a lot of shared stories. There wasn’t a thing I would have changed.
There are not enough thank you’s in the world for my village. I had friends that took us and picked us up from the airport. Meals brought to the house. Daily text messages. Cards, phone calls, gift baskets full of the things that I love best, brought me clothes, countless ways in which my tribe stepped up to the plate to let me know I wasn’t alone. People that reached out to my Lex, checking in on her, taking her out to dinner as she ended her winter break at home alone while Rob and I took care of business in MT. People whom gave me advice on what to expect, what to do and reminded me that no matter the curve ball, to hold my head up and be full of grace - let that be what they remember. All of it - nothing went unnoticed or unappreciated. From the bottom of my heart - thank you.
Put this on your to-do list. Please. It’s important and when your family is grieving, making things as easy as possible on them allows them to have that time to grieve instead of stressing about looking for paperwork, making decisions and answering questions.