Losing someone is hard enough, but on settling your loved ones affairs doesn’t have to be.
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This post won’t be about the emotional steps after loss because that’s a whole other post. Instead, I’m going to be talking about all the things that people rarely discuss, the logistics and all that go with it. (Think adulting, but to the highest level.)
Also, it’s really long, but I wanted to make sure I covered as much as I could based on my own personal experience. That being said, I’m not an attorney or a financial advisor so please talk to someone with your specific situation.
I flew home to be with my mom as soon as we found out she had an aggressive form of cancer. That first day together we talked about a million things. One topic in particular, while hard but necessary, was how to handle her affairs. Nothing was a huge surprise because after my dad passed away, my mom made some very important changes. Changes that would save me time, money, and heartache when her time on this earth was done.
Mom already updated the will, bank accounts, investments, and her home deed to reflect me as the beneficiary since I am the only child. However, mom also wanted to make sure I knew where things were, who to talk to about certain accounts, reminded me where the key to the safe was located, and she had notes saved on her phone with account and passcode information. I realize how extremely lucky I was to have the time to even have this conversation, let alone that my mom had been so diligent and organized.
However, I know after talking to many of my friends, that others may not be so lucky. Which is why I’m going to break things down as best I can. This is based on my own journey and I definitely recommend doing some research on your own. I get it, no one really wants to imagine having to go through this one day, but you will in one way or another. Ready or not. It’s better to educate yourself now, talk to your loved ones, and take necessary actions sooner than later.
Did you know the average cost of a funeral is $7000- $9000? A lot of that cost will depend on many factors: cremation, burial, caskets, burial vault, etc. Often times what isn’t included is the cost of the headstone or the cemetery plot. Years ago my parents had already purchased their cemetery plot. When my dad passed away my mom purchased a headstone that included her information as well, all I needed to do was add the date she passed away. A cost that was beyond the cost of the funeral.
We had a funeral home that our family used not only for my dad, but when my grandmother passed away. Making the arrangements went a lot smoother going through them because a lot of the information we gave for my dad, the funeral director pulled for my mother’s arrangements including the obituary. Writing my mom’s obituary was so hard, but so was picking out what my mom was going to wear. Thankfully my aunt was with me to help. It’s also helpful to bring a couple options as well as full undergarments. My mom had retained a lot of fluid during her brief illness and the funeral home takes pride in making your loved one look like themselves.
The funeral director will also do an electronic input to notify Social Security of the passing, which will also notify other government agencies. Which was helpful because mom was receiving benefits from my dad’s military service. You’ll also need to tell the funeral director how many death certificates you’ll need. Not every agency or company will want an original to close an account or apply for benefits, but to be safe I requested 10.
Even though someone passes away, their bills, debts, and income doesn’t just stop at that moment. First you have to figure out what exactly it is that they own, what bills they have, and where their income is coming from. It’s a lot and can be quite chaotic considering you’re stepping into someone else’s life temporarily. This is why it’s important to designate someone as the executor, which I’ll cover below. Aside from the monetary assets and responsibilities, the estate covers the home, vehicles, contents of the home and any other physical assets the person may own. All of this information has to be collected and given to your estate attorney who will guide you on the proper way to handle these items through Probate Court.
The Will is the wishes of the person in how they want their estate handled and divided, and is created with an estate attorney. There should be a person designated as the executor of the estate, the person responsible for handling all of the accounts, point of contact, and someone who makes sure the estate is handled according to how things are laid out in the Will. Contrary to popular belief, once someone passes away, any Power of Attorney is no longer valid.
I cannot stress how important this document will be, especially in situations where siblings or other family members are involved. Absent a Will, it could take a really long time to settle an estate. Courtney worked at a funeral home in school, and even in my own family, we’ve witnessed awful situations that caused huge fights within families. If you have children, this will be especially important so you can designate who will be responsible for raising your children should you pass away prior to the children being 18. It will also be important to designate who will handle your children’s financial affairs as well. All things to think about and talk to your estate attorney.
This is where you will open and close the estate. Once you take the Will to your estate attorney, you will sign paperwork to submit to the Probate Court. There are attorney fees as well as court costs, all of which will be dependent on how intricate the estate will be. The probate court helps to settle any issues you come across with the estate. The court will also provide any formal paperwork you may need to give to banks or other accounts designating who the executor is and how the estate should be handled. This part could take time so be prepared. Once all the physical and monetary issues are handled according to the court and law, it’s then that the estate can be closed.
Remember when I said the average cost of a funeral is $7000- $9000? The hope is that your loved one, or you, has life insurance to cover the cost of the funeral and other expenses down the road. I will warn you, it does take a few weeks to get the money from the life insurance company. In that case, you’ll need to talk to the funeral home and discuss payment options. My dad’s mom struggled with finances and in turn my parents purchased a small life insurance policy to cover the cost of her funeral. It wasn’t that much per month, but it saved them from having to come up with the money later.
I will also go on to say that life insurance through an employer is fine, as long as you’re still working. It’s best to talk to an insurance agent to discuss options and what is available to you.
Thankfully my mom had the deed to the house changed to a transfer on death (TOD) and the bank/ financial investment accounts were paid on death (POD). I ran into two accounts that will need to be taken to the Probate Court. One I think my mom must have forgotten and didn’t change after my dad passed to show me as the beneficiary. The other was POD to the girls, who are minors.
NEVER EVER POD ANYTHING TO A MINOR ONLY.
If you want to leave money to a person under the age of 18, please discuss this with your estate attorney and/or financial advisor on the proper way to handle this type of situation. There are options out there to ensure the child can have money, but all of them designate an adult as the party responsible for overseeing the money until the child becomes an adult or other stipulations. Again, talk to someone who knows and understands the laws.
A few month ago I shared my take on the book “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleansing.” God love my mom, she didn’t listen to anything I said. At the same time, at 62 years old, we also thought it would be a really long time before she would pass away. As I stated earlier, my mom did a TOD for her vehicle which meant I needed to take the vehicle title into the BMV, or DMV, and after I paid the appropriate fees, the title was put in my name. Same went for her home. The deed to the home was also TOD, and after a few signed documents and appropriate fees, the home was also in my name and I was clear to sell without having it be a part of the estate.
The contents on the other hand is a whole other issue. As an organizer it is very easy for me to know that the stuff isn’t the person. I also understand that this is where a lot of turmoil can be created between siblings and other family members. I’ve witnessed it myself first hand with other family members. I’ve heard of stories that family members have entered the home of the deceased person and taken items before other family members knew what happened. Specific items can be listed in the Will and again I highly recommend doing so, or encouraging your loved one to do this, if you know there could be issues down the line.
After I had decided what items I waned to take home with me and allowed special people in my mom’s life to also have something to remember her by, there still was a ton of stuff left. Again it’s just me, I live 5 states away, and we don’t have room in our home for any furniture. I called a local auctioneer company who came in, packed up all of the stuff, and hauled it away to an offsite location for an auction at a later date. I will tell you, things don’t go for very much at auction, so if there’s something that you know you can get a better price by selling on your own, do it. The auctioneer company also has a fee of 30-35% of the total sale. Which seems like a lot, but they also save you time and energy. I didn’t have to lift any heavy furniture, rent a truck, have a yard sale etc, so it was worth it to me to have someone else handle it. The information of the sale and the money received will also need to be given to your estate attorney to enter to the court.
Selling the home and other property
Unless you decide to keep the home and live in it yourself, if you’re legally entitled to do so, you’ll also need to find a Realtor you can trust. You can discuss options such as selling the home or keeping the home and renting it. My mom made it clear that she wanted the home sold.
Even though I decided to put the home on the market, I am still responsible for the carrying costs of the home. If there’s a mortgage, utilities, HOA fees, insurance… all of that still needs to be paid while the home is on the market. This is where it will be super important to listen to your Realtor when it comes to the listing price. The longer the home sits on the market, the more you’ll have to pay and if there’s a mortgage, guess who’s paying it… you. On top of all of that will be any necessary repairs or anything that comes up on inspection etc. I’ll definitely go more in depth on this topic at a later date.
Give yourself time and grace
I just covered a lot of information and I know that this isn’t everything. Everyone’s family situations are different, but this will at least open your eyes for things to consider. Addressing any potential issues prior to someone passing away is definitely something to do now.
Grieving the loss of a loved one is hard, but surprises make things so much harder. All the while trying to keep your own normal day to day life going, which is stressful. I flew back and forth to Ohio many times after my mom passed away to handle the estate. There were a lot of things that I needed to sign and handle in person. Also another reason to have an estate attorney you trust because they can act on your behalf if you’re not there.
I made a binder with all of the paperwork broken down by medical, bills to pay, bills I’ve paid, final notices of closed accounts, income, and life insurance. I then made a list of all of the bills that she had and cancelled the ones that I could, I.e. cable, telephone, wifi, credit cards etc. I contacted all of her sources of income to notify them and inquired about any potential benefits. Like I said earlier, my mom made it extremely “easy” for me because she was proactive prior to her passing. Even still, I ran into a couple hiccups, but I could not imagine if everything was left undone.
Is it a lot, yes, is it scary, absolutely, but I’m here to tell you it’s doable. One day at a time, one task at a time. I hope that what I shared was helpful and I hope that you will take the steps to better prepare you for the future.
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