I have found that family members who seem to be close may not know as much about of that person’s life or what plans s/he may have put down in writing as to what to do if s/he dies. When it came to my Uncle — dying at 66 somewhat unexpectedly — his sisters knew broad strokes of things he mentioned to them but were not familiar with specifics. So frankly I took it upon myself to be ‘nosy’. After all none of us knew where to begin and my cousins (“the Kids”) didn’t have a clue about financial and legal affairs in general or his. My Uncle was a very private person and given the capacity of the Kids (although 29 and 32 years of age) due to their disabilities he didn’t discuss these types of matters with them — so you begin at the beginning.
Since the group of us — the Kids + my Uncle’s 2 sisters, my Uncle’s cousin, a nephew & myself — had a lot to tackle in about 4 days before each of us had to head back to our own lives hundreds of miles away, we needed to maximize our time while still spending time with the Kids, reassuring them they were going to be okay without their parents and we would help them get through this time.
We needed to:
- Plan a service at the local funeral home;
- Make a slideshow of family photos for the service;
- Jot down thoughts for those of us who wanted to say a few words;
- Talk to the HR contact at my Uncle’s job about his payroll, benefits, etc.;
- Talk to the insurance agent about the cars, the house, etc.;
- Talk to his investment broker about his IRAs and life insurance policies;
- Clean up the house;
- Toss stuff the Kids don’t need to see or deal with that were very private;
- Find photos and documents;
- Get clothes and shoes for the Kids for the service and in general;
- Buy groceries for the Kids so they’re stocked up once we all left town;
- Set up bank accounts for the Kids since now there were no parents to buy groceries, etc.;
- Check the doors, locks, windows etc. to make sure the house was safe for the Kids to stay in for the next month;
- Fill out paperwork to make insurance claims, etc.;
- Get the Kids IDs updated since they had expired;
- And more….
To accomplish many of the tasks listed above we needed documents that we believed were in the house. So you go through and look all over the house for all of the following — this is no time to be shy!
- Credit card(s)
- Insurance policies and papers
- IRA and other investment documents and statements
- Birth certificates
- Social security number(s)
- Mother’s maiden name
- Insurance papers
- Business cards for insurance agent, lawyers, etc.
- Trust Agreements
- Bills: utilities, medical, etc.
- HR contact at her/his job
- Name and number of his/her boss
- Address book
- Safety deposit box keys
- And all other papers….
I caution you, don’t be quick to toss out something just because it doesn’t look important at first glance. Carefully go through all papers to make sure it isn’t something you or the family might need later on.
So we set up teams and we set up work areas. I bought clear storage containers, big Sharpie markers, garbage bags, a journal, boxes of latex gloves, 5 oversized bright T-shirts for each of us — just for starters. We went to Walmart probably twice a day buying items to help us complete our To Do List.
- One of us went through my Uncle’s computer and deleted private items;
- One of us went through my Uncle’s gun collection and other collectibles making an inventory, cleaning them, deciding how to store them;
- One of us went through all the photos and artwork;
- One of us went through my Uncle’s clothes and other things with one of the Kids so he could decide what he wanted to keep and what we would donate.
- One of us went through the desks, the closets and the books looking for all papers, documents, files, envelopes, etc. — all of which were brought out to me to carefully read. I read everything before making decisions on what was urgent, what we needed to keep and what we could shred and toss.
Now you may ask: “why did they need latex gloves and oversized t-shirts?” Although the house my Uncle, Aunt and the Kids lived in was a cozy two bedroom, they had lived there since 1982 and had accumulated a lot — a lot of Books, CDs, DVDs, VHS, papers, LPs, dishes, camera equipment, computer stuff, and more. They lived in the mountains, far from town — far from the grocery store, the movie theaters, the hustle and bustle — so they kept themselves quite occupied and entertained. It took us at least 20 hours to go through it all just to be able to say ‘we combed through the house and found all the important papers’. We also wanted to be comfortable leaving the Kids in the house for about 30 days until the apartment they would move to would be ready.
We tried to utilize office supplies we found in the house right away. I labelled file folders and organized documents immediately as I went through them as I knew I’d be taking the storage bin home with me.
Ahead of me were many tasks, a lot of phone calls, letters, faxes, emails — all things I am used to doing in my everyday legal work for clients. But of course this was a lot more personal. I had to be very careful handling the legal affairs of 2 disabled adults who didn’t understand or comprehend any of these matters and who certainly couldn’t handle these matters on their own. The Kids instantly became my clients and unknowingly trusted me with their lives and their future well-being.
In Part 2 I will discuss filing insurance claims, filing for 401K and pension benefits, converting IRAs, cancelling utilities (or at least trying), updating car and house insurance policies.
In Part 3 I will discuss opening a Probate case.