Probate and the Executor, Part 3 – The Next Four Months

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So you’ve had your day in court, you’ve established yourself as the Executor (aka Personal Representative) with the IRS and the bank, and you’ve taken care of the most immediate concerns.  Now what?

Next you must officially notify various parties about the probate case and your status as executor.  There are some deadlines associated with this, too, so this is no time to rest on your laurels.  Stay busy, and stay organized.

First up, within 20 days of your appointment, you must officially notify the heirs and beneficiaries.  Because in most cases this must be done by mail, it is a good practice to ensure you have correct mailing addresses for everyone as early as possible.  So, to whom, exactly, are you sending this notice?  Well, obviously, anyone named as a beneficiary in the will must be notified.  Is that it?  Possibly, but also anyone who would normally be considered an heir but who might have been left out of the will, intentionally or otherwise.  In other words, if the decedent died intestate, i.e. without leaving a will, who would be the default heirs according to law?  Any surviving spouse comes first to mind, and any children second.  If any children predeceased, or died earlier, then the children of those predeceased children step into their place.  If there is no surviving spouse and no surviving children (or grandchildren, etc), then the deceased’s parents are next in line, if they are still alive.  If there is no spouse, no children, grandchildren, etc, and no parents, then the brothers and sisters of the deceased, and their children if those siblings are already gone, etc.  It goes on from there, and can get quite complex.  The complete rules are spelled out at wa-probate.com.

Must you notify everyone conceivable on this list?  Not necessarily.  But, if there is a spouse not named in the will, you must notify that person.  If there are children not named in the will, you must notify them (or their guardians if they are minors).  If there are predeceased children, then you must notify the grandchildren in that line, and so on.  You do not need to officially notify surviving parents unless there are no spouses, children, etc, thus making the parents the default heirs of an intestate estate.  You can choose to do so, and certainly one hopes that you will at least have told them what is going on, but you don’t necessarily need to involve them in all the legalities unless they are officially beneficiaries or potential heirs.  The same goes for siblings.

So how is official notification handled?  You will prepare a document entitled Notice of Appointment of Personal Representative and Pendency of Probate & Declaration of Mailing (With Will) (this, and many other forms, can be found in template form at wa-probate.com), sign it, attach to it a Declaration of Mailing in which you list the names and addresses of each heir and beneficiary being so notified (sign that, too), and attach also a conformed copy of the will (meaning the case number and date it was admitted to court are stamped at the top of the first page).  You will send a copy of this combined document to each one, and you will file a copy with the court.

Does that mean you have to go back to the courthouse?  Not at all.  Now that the case is opened, you can file by mail, or, in King County, you can file online.  I strongly recommend this latter approach, as it will save you considerable time as well as postage, and once you learn how to navigate the website, it becomes fairly easy.  Instead of a stamp at the top of filed documents, you will get a ‘receipt’ page, which you simply attach with filed documents for your own files (and any copies you send to others).

This has now put everyone on notice that they have four months from the opening of the probate in which to file a contest if they disagree with anything.  If they are ok with the will and how things are going, they don’t need to do anything yet.

Also within that same 20 days you will publish a notice to creditors in an appropriate legal or business journal and send notice to the Department of Social and Health Services.  Technically you have 30 days to publish the creditor notice, but you need to tell DSHS within 20 days what the date of that publication is, so it’s easiest to do that first.

The Probate Notice to Creditors was one of the documents you originally filed with the court when you opened the case.  The form has fields for Date of First Publication and Decedent’s SSN which you will have left blank up to this point.  The first is because you couldn’t yet know what the date of first publication will be at the time of filing, and the second because a) you must never include an SSN on any document you file with the court (they will fine you if you do), and b) you also don’t want to include the SSN on the notice you publish in the paper or send to creditors.  You do want to include it only on the form you send to DSHS.  So, at this point you have a form with a filing conformation stamp at the top, a case number, and a signature, but two blank fields.

Find out which legal journal is authorized for this purpose in your county; in Seattle the Daily Journal of Commerce is apparently the most popular (and the one I picked).  Contact them and let them know you have a Probate Notice to Creditors to publish, and they will tell you what the date of first publication will be.  Note that this service is not cheap — it might seem as if publishing such legally required notices is the main source of income for these papers — and although technically optional, it is a very good idea and I strongly urge you to do it.  You may get advice from various well-meaning people to not bother with such a notice, but if you don’t, then creditors have two years in which they can legally come after you and the estate for claims.  If you do publish, and proactively notify any possible creditor you can think of, then that time frame is limited to four months.  The usual fear with publishing a notice that literally invites everyone to make claims against the estate is that it will bring the crazies out of the woodwork with all sorts of false, fraudulent, and frivolous claims.  However, it was my experience that this doesn’t actually happen (I did get a couple of letters offering to buy the deceased’s real estate, but that was it), and if you speak to any probate attorneys, they will all advise you to publish, as it protects you, the executor, from legal claims down the road.

So, send the notice to the journal (they will publish it three times, at one week intervals, and afterwards will send you an Affidavit of Publication to file with the court), fill in the date of first publication on your copy of the notice, make another copy of that and write in the SSN, then send that attached to a Declaration of Mailing of Probate Notice to Creditors to WDSHS to the Office of Financial Recovery, WDSHS, in Olympia.  File a copy of the combined document (sans SSN!) with the court.

Now the next timer begins.  Within 3 months of that date of first publication you must send a copy of the Probate Notice to Creditors (with date of first publication but without SSN) to each and every creditor you reasonably expect could have a valid claim against the estate.  Who are these creditors?  Well, hospitals, doctors, and pharmacies come immediately to mind.  Hospitals are notorious for billing for services months after the services were rendered, and you don’t want that to happen, so you will let them know they have a definite time limit.  So, you will want to go through the decedent’s correspondence and financial records to come up with a list of potential creditors.  Even if you’re pretty sure the creditor has been fully paid off, put them on the list to make sure.  The last thing you want is for them to come back months later and say that you didn’t properly notify them when you should have, and so therefore they are not subject to the statute of limitations.  Besides medical facilities, there might be ambulance services (including the fire department), cellphone and cable providers, landlords or assisted living facilities, etc.  So, send them all a copy of the Probate Notice to Creditors along with a Creditor’s Claim form in which you have pre filled out the header with the case information.

The creditors have up to four months from the date of first publication, or one month after you mail them the notice directly, whichever comes later, in which to file a claim.  At this point, if any legitimate bills do come in, you should make the creditor file an official claim with the court.  If claims come in, it is up to you, as executor, to determine if they are valid or not, and pay them or not.  Use your best judgment.  If in doubt, ask the creditor for documentation of the amount owed.  In my case, all the bills had been paid at this point, so no further claims came in.

Now is when you have a bit of a breather.  You have four months to wait for claims to come in, or not.  Better than waiting two years, though, eh?

When the four months have elapsed, and all claims have been disposed of one way or another, you will file with the court a Declaration re Reasonable Review to Ascertain Decedent’s Creditors, in which you will list each creditor you notified.  At this point, as long as you have dotted all the Is and crossed all the Ts, you and the estate are protected against any future claims.

By this point, also, the timer will have run out for any beneficiaries to file a contest, so the way is now clear to close out the probate and, by extension, the estate.  One last thing remains before you can do that, and that is to file any outstanding tax returns with the IRS, and that will be the subject of the next post.

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Probate and the Executor, Part 2 – The Death Checklist

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Earlier I referred to something that I euphemistically called the “Death Checklist.”  Out of context, that may sound sinister or macabre, but in this case it refers merely to being prepared, as next of kin and executor, for all the legal, financial, and social things that will need to be taken care of when a loved one passes on.  As such a time is likely to be emotional and difficult, it can be helpful to have prepared in advance a mechanical, methodical checklist of all that must be done, when, where, and how, so that you can just work your way down the list, ticking off entries as they are completed.

Number one, of course, are all the things to do before someone passes on.  In other words, these are the things that you should do to make things easier on those you will leave behind.  If your parents are getting on in years, you might consider talking with them to see what preparations they’ve made, although that can be at best a delicate conversation.
“Dad?”
“Yes, Son?”
“I was just wondering if you’ve got everything covered for your death, and all.  You know, to make my life easier.  Since I’m the one who will have to pick up the pieces when you’re gone.”

Yeah, that conversation isn’t easy.  Not only does it raise an unpleasant specter, as most of us don’t really like to be reminded of our own mortality, but in the case of the aging parent it could mean opening up the privacy of their finances for the scrutiny of their children.  Many of us like to keep our financial affairs to ourselves, but the reality is that after death, everything about our financial lives will be a matter of very public record (unless you have a complex arrangement of trusts, and so forth, and that is far beyond the scope of this posting).  One of the biggest ways to ease the path of your executor will be to ensure that they know how to find and access every financial account you possess.  You don’t have to reveal it all to them in advance, but you will need to ensure they know how to find all the documentation when the time eventually comes.

I didn’t find this planning and checklist website until afterwards, but it’s a great resource for advance planning. Don’t mind the “less-than-serious” title of this site; the information and advice presented is very serious and sober, and easy to follow.  It also includes some free templates for such forms as a will, power of attorney, etc.  Start here.

My father had made one or two smart moves in advance, several years earlier, which made my life easier when the time came.  When his wife died, for instance, and he had to go through all of this to take care of her affairs, it opened his eyes a bit.  At that time he prepaid for his eventual cremation with the Neptune Society.  He didn’t actually tell anyone about this, but fortunately I found the paperwork when I started managing his affairs.  This turned out to be a huge help in the end, not only because everything had been prepaid years in advance (when rates were cheaper, as well), but because the Society provided something of a “one-stop” phone number to call when the time came.

When he moved into assisted living, he sold his house, so now there was no real estate to worry about.  This simplified things considerably.  This isn’t always something you can plan in advance, of course.  In my father’s case, the proceeds from the sale of the house were how he paid for assisted living.  This could be a whole other posting, talking about planning for this kind of end-of-life care, but I won’t go into it now.

When I took over managing his affairs, the first thing we did was execute a Power of Attorney for Finances.  We used the Quicken Willmaker software (which is actually made by Nolo), which did a fine job of creating a legally sound document which was perfectly acceptable to banks and credit unions once it was notarized.  If no real estate is involved, the document does not need to be filed with the county clerk, merely notarized.  If real estate is involve, filing is necessary.  We then consolidated his bank accounts, simplifying things, and added me as a co-owner of the account.  This gave me an ATM card and online access to manage the account on my father’s behalf, and after his death it also meant I had immediate access to the account instead of having to wait for probate to officially begin.  This could be important if there are urgent bills to be paid, etc.

My father already had a Medical Power of Attorney and Living Will set up, with my brother as the PoA for those decisions.

Next was preparing a will.  After spreadsheeting various scenarios and coming to an agreement, we again used Quicken Willmaker to draft the actual legal language of the document.  We had this and the Financial Power of Attorney notarized at the same time.

Once these documents were in place, the next thing I set out to do was create the checklist for actions to take when the ultimate day finally arrived.  I’ll summarize that checklist here.  On my copy I included important details like phone numbers, account numbers, etc, that would be quickly needed, so I had it all in one place.  Bear in mind this list is specific to my father’s situation, and some of the items are also specific to Washington State, but in general, this checklist should serve as a model for most people.

I adapted some of my list from AARP’s How to Handle Death of Loved One – Checklist document, which is another great resource.  Other parts came from http://www.wa-probate.com, a truly invaluable resource for anyone managing an estate in Washington State.

  1. Contact Hospice.
    1. In fact, the assisted living facility did this on our behalf, so a hospice nurse was already at my father’s bedside when I arrived on the scene.  This care had been setup about a month before, on my father’s doctor’s advice, when it was clear he was near the end.
    2. Not only did the hospice staff make his final days significantly easier, they also provided a nurse for preparing his body, and they made the initial contact to the cremation society (Neptune).
  2. Contact the cremation society / funeral home.
    1. The funeral home or cremation society will pick up the body, order death certificates, and notify Social Security.
  3. Notify immediate family.
  4. Cancel cellphone (his only remaining recurring bill, so obviously cancel any other monthly utilities or services as well — stop the money from flowing out).
    1. You will probably need either a Death Certificate or a Power of Attorney to do this.
  5. Forward postal mail to yourself.
    1. Also register as deceased with the Direct Marketing Association to reduce junk mail.
  6. If not provided directly by the funeral home, order copies of the death certificate from your county’s department of vital statistics.
    1. You’ll probably need about half a dozen.  I ended up getting twenty, which was far too many and therefore an unnecessary expense.  Still, it pays to get a few more than you think you’ll need for unforeseen circumstances when you need it quickly to avoid delay, and you’ll definitely want one for your records.
    2. Some agencies need official certified copies, and some are fine with photocopies of a certified copy.  You will definitely need a certified copy before you can open probate with the court, so getting this document is the key to getting the legal and financial ball rolling.  Delays in obtaining the death certificate result in delays in everything that comes after.
  7. Social Security
    1. The funeral home should have notified them already.
    2. SSA has their own “what to do” for survivors pages:
      1. How Social Security Can Help You When a Family Member Dies
    3. Also, if a spouse survives, there are benefits that can be claimed, both a one-time cash benefit and an ongoing monthly benefit.  What many people don’t realize is that even a divorced spouse may be eligible for benefits, as long as the marriage lasted at least ten years.  This is true even if the deceased remarried afterwards.
      1. Survivors Planner: How Much Would Your Benefit Be?
    4. Eventually SSA will update their “Death Master File”, which helps to avoid the deceased’s SSN being misused for identity theft purposes, among other things.  They don’t make the file publicly accessible, but you can purchase a copy of it.  I don’t recommend this.  Third-party websites (I’m looking at you, Ancestry.com) make this information available to their members.  What you can do, however, is validate that the SSN has been added to the master file with the free website www.ssnvalidator.com.  It may take a while for their database to be updated, but eventually this site will be able to tell you that the SSN has been marked as belonging to a deceased person, so check back later to ensure accuracy.
    5. It is not necessary to notify Medicare; SSA will take care of that automatically.  Likewise, if the deceased had a Medicare Supplementary insurance plan, Medicare will notify the plan administrator.
    6. There can be a lot of confusion about the final Social Security payment to the deceased.  Some of the literature on this point says payments made in the month of death must be returned.  What they mean is that payments made for the month of death must be returned.  For instance, my father died on the 3rd of March.  On the 1st of March he received his final Social Security payment by direct deposit to his checking account.  That payment, although received in March, was for the month of February, and he (or his estate, in this case) was allowed to keep it.  It was very unclear for a while, however, so if at all in doubt, make sure that enough money remains in the checking account for at least a month or so in case SSA pulls back the deposit.  Yes, in the case of direct deposit, they will automatically pull back the final payment from the bank account if they deem that it must be returned, so you have to ensure the account can cover it if that happens.
  8. Notify any pension plans so that payments stop.  If a payment is received after death, you will likely have to refund it.
  9. Notify any life insurance provider to get the ball rolling to receive any benefits due.
  10. If any services have been prepaid, the estate may be due a refund, so follow these up.  The big one here is likely to be rent.  For instance, if the deceased was living in an assisted living facility, they probably paid a deposit and prepaid a first and last month’s rent and fees, similar to an apartment.  Except in this case the dollar amounts are probably a lot higher than any apartment.  So, the estate may be due a refund on that deposit and on the final month’s rent (perhaps prorated).  Naturally, you will need to quickly clear any personal effects out of the rented room.
  11. Consult any “last wishes” documents and discuss with family members about memorial service arrangements.  Note that if the deceased was a military veteran, military service organizations may want to do something for the memorial.  This can be especially true if they are one of the few remaining WWII veterans.  Unfortunately, in my father’s case, he was a WWII veteran from a foreign service, not the US, so US agencies did not recognize him as a veteran for this or any other purpose.
  12. Consider publishing an obituary.  These can get more expensive than you realize, and there is the consideration that they may bring folks out of the woodwork seeking to cash in on your loss, so consider carefully what you publish.  You will be publishing an official notice to creditors later, however, anyway, so you’ll need to be prepared to deal with this.  Mostly it came in the form of some extra junk mail, nothing serious, so don’t be afraid from scare stories you may hear.
  13. Notify any friends or organizations (clubs, etc) that may have had a connection to the deceased and haven’t already been told.
  14. Begin now to obtain and/or confirm the addresses for all beneficiaries named in the will.  An informal “heads-up” notice is not out of line, before you start mailing them official documents, but it’s not required.
  15. Within 40 days of the death, open the probate with the court (http://www.wa-probate.com/Instructions/Opening/Opening.htm).  Really, do this as soon as you have a death certificate in hand.  You will need to appear in court in person to do this, unless the will was filed with the court in advance of the death.
    1. You will need the following documents in hand for your day in court, so obtain and/or prepare these in advance (www.wa-probate.com is a great resource for legal form templates); bring copies of each to ‘conform’ and keep for your records (conforming is the process of officially stamping copies as received by the clerk, with a date and case number):
      1. Death Certificate (may or may not be required, so be sure to have it with you)
      2. Case Assignment Designation & Case Information Cover Sheet
      3. Will
      4. Petition for Probate of Will, Letters Testamentary, & Nonintervention Powers
      5. Order Admitting Will to Probate & Granting Letters Testamentary & Nonintervention Powers
      6. Oath of Personal Representative (With Will)
      7. Waiver of Compensation by Personal Representative
        1. Optional, but to avoid any questions, it’s probably best to not plan to pay yourself for your time.
      8. Probate Notice to Creditors
    2. An appointment is generally not required, but there are certain times of the day when the probate court is ready to hear new petitions, so check your county’s website and/or call the clerk of the court the day before you plan to go.
    3. Each court has their own procedure, of course, but in King County’s Seattle courthouse, it goes something like this (I adapted the outline below from a similar outline published by http://www.wa-probate.com and modified it per my own experience):
      1. Go to the Attorney’s Information Bureau on the 6th floor, sign the Oath of Personal Representative there and have your signature notarized (minor fee required); obtain a copy for your records (in fact, get a copy of everything that you file with the court for your own records).
      2. Go down the hall to the clerk’s windows and file the Case Assignment, Will, and Petition for Letters (the clerk will keep the original of the petition).  The clerk will stamp the originals and hand you a prepared stamp to conform your own copies.  While you have the stamp, conform the three just mentioned, plus the other documents you brought with you (not the death certificate).  The filing fee to open the case is $240, so be prepared for that.
      3. The clerk will advise you which courtroom to go to; it will probably be on the 3rd floor.
      4. In the courtroom, another case will probably be in session, so quietly walk up the side of the room and approach the judge’s clerk, who will be at a desk off to the side of the judge’s bench.  These clerks are amazing at juggling things, so they’ll see you approach and let you know to come on or wait.
      5. Tell the clerk you have a Petition for Letters and are there to be appointed as a personal representative.  Hand him/her the originals of the Case Assignment, Will, Petition for Letters (probably the conformed copy, assuming the county clerk kept the original), and Order Admitting Will.  Wait nearby.
      6. When called, say “Ready, your Honor” and walk up in front of the judge’s bench.  Say “Good morning, your Honor.  My name is <xxx>, and I am here requesting appointment as a Personal Representative.”
      7. After this point, the judge runs the show, so there’s no script.  He or she may have some questions, so respond simply, directly, and concisely.  The entire point here is to keep things short and simple, as the entire affair should not take more than five to fifteen minutes.  Don’t launch into long-winded and embellished stories (like my brother did when he went with me!); that said, the judge runs the show, and in our case she asked questions of personal interest because she actually seemed to care, so go with the flow.
        1. Since my father’s will named minors as beneficiaries, at this point the judge ordered that a Guardian ad Litem be appointed to ensure their interests were adequately protected, so the clerk quickly prepared this document from a template.  If there are minors in the will, ask that the nominees named in the will as custodians be appointed as fiduciaries.
      8. Eventually the judge will sign the Order and hand the documents back to either you or the clerk.  Say “Thank you, your Honor,” and step away.
      9. The clerk should stamp the signed Order for you with the judge’s seal, and then return all the documents to you for filing.
      10. Return to the County Clerk’s office on the 6th floor and hand the clerk the signed Order and the other original documents.  These will now be filed into the case (you kept your own conformed copies, right?).
      11. The clerk will give you a certified copy of the signed Order and of the Letters Testamentary (minor fees are associated with these certified copies).  Ask for a couple certified copies of the Letters, as you may need to leave one with the bank (or they may just photocopy it).
      12. You’re done!  You have now been officially appointed as the Executor.  Unless something unusual occurs, this will probably be your last physical court appearance.  Everything else can usually be handled online or by the mail.
      13. Go have a beer or a coffee.
  16. Now you must file a few documents with the IRS:
    1. First, file a Form SS-4, Application for Employer Identification Number.  The EIN becomes the estate’s tax ID, sort of a business-version of an SSN, and you will need this number before you go to the bank.
      1. Instructions for Form SS-4 are here.
      2. No need to mail anything!  Apply online here and get the number immediately.
    2. Once you have an EIN, the next order of business is to file a Form 56, Notice Concerning Fiduciary Relationship.  This tells the IRS that you are now acting on behalf of the decedent for tax purposes, and allows you do things such as file a final Form 1040 for the year of death, plus any estate tax forms that may be required.  Also, the IRS will now come to you with any matters they have regarding the estate or the deceased.
      1. Instructions for Form 56 are here.
      2. Unfortunately, there’s no online application for this one.  You must fill in the PDF, print it, sign it, and mail it in the old-fashioned way.  The form is here.
  17. Time to visit the bank.  Take your Letters Testamentary, the Death Certificate, and your EIN just obtained from IRS, and of course your own identification.  Ask the bank to open a new estate checking account, as well as give you control over any existing accounts.  Assuming the estate is not too complex and the probate should be wrapped up within a year, you may want to consider consolidating everything into the estate account, which should be a non-interest-bearing account.  Many banks will treat estate accounts like small business accounts.  Earning any interest other than small amounts may complicate the estate tax handling, so if it’s not going to be significant, it’s probably easier to avoid having any estate income.  The timing of closing out the original accounts is up to you; you’ll want to ensure that any legitimate final direct withdrawals are made before you do so, of course, but once any such services are cancelled and final payments made, there’s little reason to keep the original accounts open.  From now on, whenever possible, use checks from the estate account to pay for any estate expenses, as this will simplify bookkeeping and keep a clean audit trail, should it ever become necessary to produce one.
  18. Notify the credit reporting agencies.  At this time, all three require a mailed letter, copies of the death certificate, and at least one wants a copy of your Letters Testamentary.
    1. Equifax
    2. Experian
    3. TransUnion
  19. Notify the Department of Licensing and the local county and/or state elections divisions.  However, in all these cases, the procedure is unclear.  They may or may not be automatically informed by DSHS or other state agencies.  I contacted them by letter directly anyway, just to be sure.
  20. Cancel any other accounts and memberships, such as email, AARP, etc.  Some of these may require copies of the death certificate.

At this point, you have most of the immediate concerns completed.  There are court-imposed timelines for your next activities, but I’ll go into those in a future post.  Just be aware that within twenty days of being appointed as Executor you must officially notify DSHS and all the beneficiaries, and within thirty days of appointment you must publish a Probate Notice to Creditors in a local business journal.  That last kicks off a four-month timer that mostly determines the duration of the rest of the probate.

Probate and the Executor, Part 1

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The first few days after death are among the most busy for the executor of the estate, but one could be forgiven for thinking things will settle down shortly after that.  After all, you read on websites and people say to you things like “It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” assuring you to take your time and not stress out.

Unfortunately, it stays busy for months.  If the estate is not large enough to warrant hiring an attorney, the executor can be quite busy, and there are court-imposed deadlines for getting various things done, independent of the natural desire to wrap things up and get the money to the heirs and beneficiaries.  If the estate’s assets are not complex, and if there are few heirs, then truly it doesn’t have to be very complex.  My father’s estate was not large and not complex, consisting almost entirely of a simple bank account, but there were a large number of people named in his will.  Some of those people were children, and some of them were non-US citizens, living overseas.  One of them was a child living overseas.

As soon as there is more than a single beneficiary, the estate has gained complexity.  When one or more beneficiaries are minors, that complexity expands considerably.  When international beneficiaries are added to the mix… well, you get the idea.

As executor, you are legally bound to pay attention to every detail, and whether or not the process sails easily through court or gets bound up in all kinds of oversight depends upon getting those details right.  Well-meaning relatives will tell you “oh, don’t worry about x, y, or z”, because it’s just a family affair and everyone will understand, but that actually doesn’t wash.  It’s a legal affair, and it’s also an IRS affair, and courts and the IRS are not known for being forgiving of fudging the details.  Additionally, when there are many beneficiaries, and some of them are relatives who have grown distant from the family, whom you no longer know very well and don’t know how they will respond, there is added impetus to dot all the I’s and cross all the T’s.  The executor can be legally liable for any mistakes.  You have to protect yourself.

So, all that sounds rather scary, but actually it’s not that bad.  The key is attention to detail and being organized.  Some advance preparation can help as well.  I am not a highly organized person by nature, but I am detail-oriented, sometimes to a fault (this is useful in my job, but sometimes causes personal projects to take far longer than needed).  Knowing that it would be a difficult and unfamiliar process, I took steps before my father died to map out what the process would look like, to create an outline of what had to be done and when.  I created a death checklist.

Death of a loved one, even when expected in an elderly parent, is generally an emotionally difficult time.  I anticipated this, and I thought having a checklist that I could follow, ticking off the tasks as I completed them, would help keep me on track.  That turned out to be true, although not everything happened the way I expected it to. What I did not anticipate was how clinical I could become about the whole process, relegating it in my mind to this checklist, this series of steps to take, documents to file with the court and mail to the beneficiaries, arrangements to make with the bank and other institutions, forms to send to IRS.  It was necessary to stay focused, but at times I actually feel guilty for not being more emotional about the fact that my father is gone. It hits me every once in a while, but overall I feel rather detached, and I wonder if there’s something not quite right about me because of that.  My siblings have thanked me again and again for handling this and praised the job I’ve done, and inside I still at times feel a bit like a fraud, because after all, I’m just following this checklist.  At times I’ve had to harangue some of the beneficiaries (or their guardians, in the case of the minors) when I’ve needed something from them, and this especially makes me feel awful.  I send off a hopefully-diplomatically worded email, or Facebook IM, or actual letter in one case, and afterwards I remember that this person just lost their father, or grandfather, or great-grandfather, and I’m harassing them about some document or other.  I had to send another such missive off last night, and here it was, the eve of Thanksgiving.  What a holiday spirit.

So there you have the first set of rocks that, as executor, you must carefully navigate around.  You need a careful balance of humanity and detachment.  The detachment is necessary if the job is to be done, and done right, and in a timely manner.  Really, everyone else will thank you for this in the end.

So what really is the job of the executor?  What is all this work that I’ve alluded to above?  Well, in my case, the job started about two years before my father actually died, and perhaps that’s why I was so detached from it all when the time finally arrived.  I had been anticipating and preparing for it for a long time.

It all started when my older brother suffered a worksite injury that put him in the hospital for about six weeks, and for which the outcome was rather uncertain.  He eventually recovered pretty much fully from that, thankfully, but at the time it was rather frightening.  As the eldest of all the siblings, he had somewhat naturally assumed the job of taking care of our elderly father’s affairs, especially in the first year after Dad moved into assisted living.  Suddenly he was out of commission, and it fell to me to pick up the reins.  I think at that point I realized that I had always been rather selfish, letting my brother take care of all the family business while I just got on with my life, and I resolved to step up and do my part.

FYI, I blogged about my brother’s hospital experience at http://www.caringbridge.org (login required), and that was my first-ever blog.

After spending the best part of a week at my brother’s bedside in the ICU, I resolved to pick up where he had left off in the care of our father.  The biggest part of that was regularly visiting him at his assisted living center.  I had visited him, of course, but as it was nearly a ninety-minute drive (in traffic) from my home, it wasn’t all that frequent.  Now it became a weekly affair, and soon I was making the drive from downtown Seattle to Gig Harbor every Monday after work.  We spent this time chatting, watching movies on his TV, eating dinner at the facility’s cafeteria, and talking about his fascinating life story (a few hints of which have already appeared in these pages).

Tax season was approaching, and I knew that my father would need help with his taxes.  So, we executed a Financial Power of Attorney and I began sorting out his finances.  I found a mess.  Rob, my brother, had done much to see to Dad’s medical affairs and general day-to-day wellbeing, but he had left his financial affairs alone, and we had both trusted that Dad knew enough to take care of things for himself.  It turned out that his mental state had been deteriorating for some time before he went into assisted living, and we just had not realized it.

Organizing his finances for purposes of tax preparation gave me a very good picture of his overall financial picture, of course, and keeping things on track for the next couple of years, up until his death, meant that when the time came there were no hidden surprises in store for me.  So, this was the first part of being prepared.

Once I had the Financial Power of Attorney in place and had settled his bank accounts and tax status, I moved on to getting the rest of his estate in order.  I asked to see his will.

He had one, hand-written, un-notarized, a single paragraph stating, in effect, that he gave everything to Rob and trusted him to distribute it fairly.  In his papers I found another one, typed but un-signed and un-dated, in which he said something about giving money to each of his grandchildren, so that they might remember him.  It was not clear which was the most recent, and of course they were in conflict.  Neither was likely to stand up to any challenge, should someone object.

So, I discussed this with both Rob (by this time he had mostly recovered from his accident, but we agreed that since I had delved so deeply into Dad’s finances, I should continue in the role, while Rob would handle the Medical Power of Attorney duties — a division of duties that suited me perfectly, as if the need for a ‘pull the plug’ decision were ever to come, I really really didn’t want to have to lead that) and Dad.  The three of us agreed that a new will was required, and after a lot of spreadsheeting of various scenarios, we agreed on a plan.

One of the elements of this plan was an attempt to bring some of Dad’s great-grandchildren, who had been inadvertently cut off from the family by the actions of their father, back into contact.  In essence, Dad named great-grandchildren in his will both so that they would have something to remember him by, but also so that there could be an ‘inciting incident’ (to use literary terminology) to bring us all back together.

This was a brilliant idea, and one that ultimately worked extremely well.  It also added considerable complexity to the estate management, a fact I would not realize until after Dad’s death when I delved into the particulars of making it all happen.  I have no regrets on that score, however, and the complexity has been worth every day of work missed, every court appearance, the attorney’s fees that ultimately had to be paid anyway, and all the extra filings and snarky emails I had to send.  By this simple decision to extend his will to one further generation, Dad re-united our family in a way that had stymied us previously.

Again, money was an issue, so hiring an attorney to draft the will was not a reasonable alternative.  Fortunately, without real estate or business assets involved, nor an expectation of anything highly contentious, an attorney was not required.  We selected Nolo’s WillMaker software to draft the will and found a notary public who would travel to Dad’s location in Gig Harbor.  Easy peasy.

And of course, who would be selected as executor?  I volunteered, of course, but it only made sense.  I had been Dad’s financial advisor and power of attorney for some time.  I pretty much managed his bank accounts for him, giving him monthly reports on his status.  I talked with him regularly about his wishes.  I prepared his tax returns and represented him to IRS.  I helped him draft the will.  I lived not too far away.

I worried, of course, that some might see a conflict of interest, since I was also named as a beneficiary in the will.  I am his son, after all.  So, I took great pains to be as open and forthcoming as I could with everyone about every aspect of the estate, without compromising Dad’s privacy too much.

Later, after Dad suffered his stroke, it was clear we needed to update the will, as by then a new great-grandchild had been born and another was on the way.  We planned to wait until Eleanor would be born and then revise to include the new family additions.

But, last February, on the advice of Dad’s doctor, he entered hospice care, and we all agreed that we could not wait for Eleanor’s birth.  I could not find anything to indicate a problem with naming an unborn beneficiary, and of course we hoped that she would be born by the time the will had to be put into action.

That was not to be, however.  Dad died only a few weeks after signing the new will in front of a notary provided by the hospice.  Not long after that, I presented the will in front of a judge to have it admitted into court and the probate opened, and the judge assigned an attorney as Guardian Ad Litem to ensure the rights of the minor beneficiaries would be adequately observed, including, of course, the one beneficiary not yet even born.  The GAL, as court documents thereafter referred to him, found it unusual to name an unborn child as a beneficiary, but he could think of no precedent or law to indicate anything wrong with it.  His comment was “I hope the parents are right about her sex,” to which I replied, “Well, if it turns out to be a boy, I’ll tell them they still have to name him Eleanor!”

About two months after Dad’s death, Eleanor was born, a beautiful baby girl.  She never did get to meet her great-grandfather, but because of him she now has a small financial stake for her start in life.  It’s not much, but from tiny beginnings, great things may come.

(to be continued)

A Final Voyage

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Captain Fraser has sailed into his sunset.  Early on the morning of Sunday, 3 March 2013, my father breathed his last and departed to rejoin his wife, who left us sometime earlier, in 2002.  My brother and I spent the night at his side, holding his vigil and keeping him company, while he ranged ahead to scout his path, until he no longer had need of us.  He was 92 years old.

The past year has been a busy one for me, and I fear both writing and research had to take a back seat for a time as my father had more immediate needs for my attention.  Last August he suffered a stroke, which necessitated a month in hospital and rehab and then a move to a more advanced long-term care home.  Our days of watching Game of Thrones together and discussing his nautical adventures came to an end.  Instead our attention had to shift to ensuring he was getting the medical care he required and, sadly, seeing that his affairs were all in order.  I still visited him about weekly, but due to the communal nature of his new living arrangement, it was not reasonable to spend hours with him the way I had in his previous assisted living center.

In February his doctor advised him to shift to hospice care, and this was a good call.  I think all the exams and tests and needle pricks were probably getting to be a bit much, and now there was no longer any need for all that, replacing it instead with a focus on comfort and quality of life.  Indeed, the changed nature of the attention paid upon my father rather brightened his outlook, and his health rebounded somewhat, but the doctor’s prognosis was not in error.  His kidneys were failing, he had persistent low-grade pneumonia, and things were just shutting down.

That Saturday evening the staff at his home called me to say he was in rapid decline, and when I fussed about calling my brother my wife said to me, “I’ll take care of that; you go.  You don’t want to be late.”  The home was only a block from my own, and so I grabbed phone, wallet, and keys and ran over there.  When I arrived he was in his bed, unconscious, breathing with difficulty, and a nurse from the hospice was attending to him.  My brother arrived not long after that.

The youngest of the caregivers from the home, the one who had found my father slumped, unresponsive, in his chair, looked on, clearly fighting hard to hold back tears.  In a halting voice she told us she tried hard not to become too attached to the residents, for obvious reasons, but then the tears came on strong and she admitted, “But I fell in love with your dad.”  He always did have that effect on the ladies.  Hers were not the only wet eyes.

As the evening wore on most visitors left, the nurse having given the staff instructions to administer a medication regularly.  We called our sisters to let them know, and the two in California elected to catch the next flight, departing at 7am.  The staff woman staying on duty that night slept on the couch, getting up every two hours, like clockwork, to come down and give him his dose.  My brother, Rob, and I stayed on, awake, through the night, dozing but a little in the darkest pre-dawn hours, speaking to my father, reading him poems, and holding his hand.

Shortly before 7 we stepped upstairs for a cup of tea.  We were upstairs for perhaps ten minutes.

When we came back down, he was gone.  It was just after 7, and Jocelyn and Deborah’s flight had just taken off from San Francisco.

I looked out the window at the sunrise and saw that the forecasters had got it wrong yet again:  it was supposed to be cloudy and drizzly on Sunday, but in fact the day dawned clear, bright, and beautiful, if rather chilly.  I am not an overly emotional person, but I struggled with it then.  It is not at all uncommon for dying people to wait for others to leave the room, and I knew this, even thought of it while drinking that cup of tea, and yet now I could not shake a sense of guilt for having stepped out of the room.  Later something my niece would say to me would cause me to realize that, after the years of rather intense invasions of privacy, both physical and financial, associated with assisted living, this would be the one final act that my father could take in complete privacy, on his own terms, and this was a comforting thought.  He remained the Master of his fate, the Captain of his soul.

A few hours later the girls arrived, with only one slight detour due to Seattle’s infamous street signage (no, you cannot drive a car down a stairway, though city maps might lead you to believe it is a through route).  We had elected not to tell them until they arrived, knowing they were driving a rental car in an unfamiliar city while sleep-deprived, but Deborah took one look at my face and knew.

The hospice sent out another nurse to help us prepare Dad for his last journey.  He was a big fellow, no two ways about it, and while the nurse was entirely competent and professional, she was also a younger lady of slighter stature.  She did not ask for it, but it was clear she was going to need some help.  Rob and I looked at each other, went into the room with her, and shut the door.  She was very thankful.

I will not describe the process of washing and dressing my father’s body, but I will say that it was at once difficult for me and also helpful.  I cannot say it was at all pleasant, by any means, but it felt ritualistic, and by the time we were done it had helped me come to terms with everything. The nurse helped tremendously with her cool professionalism and calm, respectful manner.  My final image of Dad is one of patrician dignity lying in calm, peaceful repose.

The funeral home’s man arrived, and we helped shift Dad’s body into his black van.  The fellow apologized that he had another “passenger” that day, so he hoped we would not mind if Dad had to share the ride.  We believe Dad’s only objection would be that his companion was a gentleman rather than a lady.  I watched as the van drove off and out of sight, then turned and went back inside to rejoin the others.

The next 36 hours are a bit of a blur to me.  Sunday afternoon was all about family, and Monday was yet another beautiful day, with the Olympics, Cascades, and Mt Rainier shining in crystal snow-capped clarity.  We took a walk along Magnolia Bluff and watched a tug towing a barge into Elliott Bay.  It was not a Foss tug, unfortunately.  That evening the girls caught their flight back to California, and Tuesday my work dealing with “officialdom” began.  Appropriately, Tuesday was more typically Seattle grey.

Captain Robert William Campbell Fraser, Lieutenant Commander, RNZNR, Marine Superintendent, and Master Mariner, veteran of World War II, of Foss Launch & Tug, Dillingham Corporation, the Union Steamship Company, and J&C Harrison’s Shipping, husband of Dorothy and Judith, son of John Fraser and Gladys Annie Dinah Statter, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, brother, uncle, and friend, has departed on his final command, a last cruise, at the far end of which his beloved wife awaits him.  So he had always believed, and so it is true.  May we all live a life so well.

The Falkland Islands

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CONFIDENTIAL

Ministry of Defence
London, England WC32

FLTC-660
1 April 1982

MOD Order 10482

Robert William Campbell Fraser
Lieutenant Commander, Royal New Zealand Navy
c/o Foss Launch & Tug Company
660 West Ewing Street
Seattle, Washington 98119
United States of America

Reference:  (A) MOD Directive 33182

In accordance with Reference A, you are hereby recalled to active service in support of Her Majesty’s Naval Forces efforts to regain control of the Falkland Islands.

As soon as practicable, and not later than 12 April 1982, you are directed to proceed to Port Stanley, Falkland Islands, where you will assume the duties of Commandant of the Falkland Islands, with the rank of Captain, Royal Navy.

Your duties will be to assemble all military forces remaining in Port Stanley and hold position until formally relieved by Her Majesty’s forces.

Upon successful cessation of hostilities, you will be released to inactive service with the rank of Captain, Royal Navy, and the honorary title of Commodore.

By special dispensation from the President of the United States, your service in support of the Crown will not alter your United States citizenship status.

(signature)
John Nott
Secretary of State for Defence

———————————————————————–

So reads a letter, in triplicate, that I recently discovered among my father’s papers.  I didn’t have any memory of him heading out of the country urgently in early 1982 (this would have been two months before I graduated high school, and at the time I was not in Seattle, but San Mateo in California).  I was pretty sure that if he had rushed off to take command of military forces in the Falklands at the outbreak of the conflict, I would have known about that.  The letter appeared genuine.  It’s clearly typed on paper that is aged about right to be from 1982, and in an envelope that is similarly aged.  I don’t know what John Nott‘s signature is supposed to look like, but he was indeed Secretary of State for Defence in the British government at the outbreak of the Falklands War.

So I asked my father, “What is this?  Were you called up for service in 1982?”  His response:  “Oh, that.  I assumed it was a practical joke and ignored it.”  And of course, it has to have been a joke.  The letterhead is missing the Ministry of Defence logo.  There are no accompanying details about orders or disbursement of funds or exactly how he was to get himself to Port Stanley at a time when Argentina was pretty much blockading the place.  And why exactly would the Royal Navy call upon an ex-reserve officer who had been out of the service for about twenty years, and New Zealand’s Navy at that, and was now living as a private citizen in the United States?  To take command, of all things?  Surely the Royal Navy must have had an active duty commander available; surely they wouldn’t be quite that desperate.

Still, what if it wasn’t a joke?  What if it was real, absurd as it sounded?  My next question, then, was “Well, did you check it out?  Did you follow up, or contact anyone at the Ministry of Defence?”  No, he did not.  He just filed the letter away and ignored it.  He assumed one of his sons (not I) had concocted it.  What if?  Thirty years later, and could he be considered derelict in his duty?  Surely not.

I asked my brother Rob what he knew about it, and he had no memory of the letter.  It wasn’t him.  Not his style, in any case.

1 April 1982.  April 1st.  An April Fools joke, surely.

As it happens, at midnight that night, April 1st, is when Argentine amphibious troops began landing on the islands, and as the buildup to this event had occurred over the previous few months, British forces were already steaming toward them.  By the end of the next day, London was telexing to find out what happened:

LON (London): HELLO THERE WHAT ARE ALL THESE RUMOURS WE HEAR THIS IS LON
FK (Falklands): WE HAVE LOTS OF NEW FRIENDS
LON: WHAT ABOUT INVASION RUMOURS
FK: THOSE ARE THE FRIENDS I WAS MEANING
LON: THEY HAVE LANDED
FK: ABSOLUTELY
LON: ARE YOU OPEN FOR TRAFFIC IE NORMAL TELEX SERVICE
FK: NO ORDERS ON THAT YET ONE MUST OBEY ORDERS
LON: WHOSE ORDERS
FK: THE NEW GOVERNORS
LON: ARGENTINA
FK: YES
LON: ARE THE ARGENTINIANS IN CONTROL
FK: YES YOU CAN’T ARGUE WITH THOUSANDS OF TROOPS PLUS ENORMOUS NAVY SUPPORT WHEN YOU ARE ONLY 1600 STRONG. STAND BY.
–Duncan, Andrew, The Falklands War, Marshall Cavendish Books Limited, ISBN 1-84415-429-7

In retrospect, I am convinced the letter was indeed an April Fools joke, although the timing was propitious and the invasion was certainly no joke.  Indeed, the whole thing has the feel of the work of my other brother, Peter.  The attention to detail in the letter would be just right for him, as would the idea in the first place.  I wish I could ask him about it now, but of course that’s impossible.

Peter died in 1996.

John Fraser and the Archives

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Genealogists and historians alike have apparently been quite excited by the public release earlier this month of the 1940 US Census, and with good reason.  There is a great deal of information available about a pivotal time in the history of the world.  Compared to the 2010 census, the 1940 might also be more revealing, as families were asked about 65 questions compared to an average of 10 questions most recently.  However, those 65 questions will probably not help me very much, as my family did not come to the United States until 1969.  Oh, it’s possible I’ll find something of interest in there when I begin to seriously look at some branches that had forays to the US prior to my own emigration, but meanwhile all the excitement seems to be passing me by.

That’s all right, however, as this month did drop a nice little present into my lap as well, so I needn’t feel completely left out.

My grandfather, John Fraser, born and died in New Zealand, was a war veteran.  While the 1940 Census may be of special interest to those researching the Second World War, John was a veteran of the First, or as it was known in his time, the Great War.  I knew this, and from family oral history I knew that he was a veteran of Gallipoli and France, and that somewhere along the way he was wounded, a wound which would give him pain for the rest of his life.  This, however, was about all I knew.  I never did get to meet my grandfather; he died five months before I was born.

Discussions with my father and my uncle have shed a little light on John’s character and history, but much about him remains unknown to me.  I know that he was born in 1894 in Tauranga on the Bay of Plenty.  I know that his father died when he was only 11, and although his father appears to have had a little money, none of it seems to have been left to the family after his death.  I know that by the age of 12 he was working to help support the family, and probably he never got much in the way of a formal education after that point.  A few years later, probably about the time he was 17, his mother emigrated to Australia, where she would spend the rest of her life, but it isn’t entirely clear if John went with her.  His two sisters both ended up living in Australia as adults, and John certainly spent some time there, but he and his older brother Robert both were back in New Zealand at least by the time war broke out in 1914.  In those few years from about 1911 to 1914 he “carried his swag” (to use my uncle’s words) around Australia and even apparently spent a little time working for a circus.  I have no documentation of these movements, however.

What is documented is that in 1914 John Fraser signed up with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force.  Actually, eleven different John Frasers signed up that year, and six of them had no middle name, like my grandfather (an oddity, that, as his brother had a middle name, his father had a middle name, he gave all his children two middles names each), which doesn’t exactly make it easy to isolate which one was him.  However, of those six, only one was in the Auckland Military District (which would definitely have included Tauranga), and according to the New Zealand Army WWI Nominal Rolls, that one gave as his next of kin Mrs Annie Fraser, mother, of 99 Victoria St, Darlinghurst, Sydney.  My great-grandmother was Mrs Sarah Annie Fraser (née Cliffe), and she moved to Sydney around 1911, where she lived until her death in 1936.  By 1936 she had a different address than Victoria St, but over that space of time it’s entirely likely she moved at least once, and besides, the two addresses are an 8-minute walk from each other.  She didn’t move far.  As for calling herself by her middle name, I don’t know if that was her custom, but her mother was also Sarah so it would not be unusual for her to grow up being called by her middle name.  She called her firstborn daughter Annie, so it seems she was fond of the name, and that Annie then went on to be known by her middle name.  There seems to be some support for the notion that Sarah Annie Fraser would be known as Annie.

The evidence that this is my John Fraser seems quite strong, but it’s still not conclusive, and we still don’t know much about what he did other than sign up.

Enter Archives New Zealand, the official archival office of the New Zealand government.  The Archives holds most of the older war records (the Defence Force keeps everything more recent), and they have published an index to their holdings online.  Now, as you might imagine, there are many mentions of a John Fraser in the government archives, but most of them have nothing to do with my family.  Twenty-two of them are WWI personnel records, nine with no middle name, and most of them have only the index online.  How to find the right one?

Well, going back to the Nominal Rolls, which have been digitized on ancestry.com, and assuming the record I found earlier is my John, I have a critical piece of unique identifying information:  his regimental number.  If I’ve got the right man, my John Fraser was number 13/993a in the NZ Army, and that number 13/993a, appears in the Archives index.  We have a match.

Drilling into the index, I come across the statement “Access to this record has been restricted… for preservation reasons,” which means the microfilm on which the record is kept has become fragile.  They aren’t letting people handle and view the microfilm.  The restriction will next be reviewed in 2015.

For a moment I have a sinking feeling, akin to when you find a record and realize it will require a personal visit on the far side of the world to see it.  Not that I wouldn’t love to travel back to New Zealand and spend time digging around, but it’s not in the cards for this year.  Or next.

Further reading, however, reveals that for a nominal fee I can ask the Archives personnel to digitize the record and make it available online.  Presto!  I quickly submit my application, pay my fee, and now I am just waiting for the result.  The details of this record should make it absolutely clear if I have the right man, since it should list details about his birth and next of kin that are known to me.  Beyond that, the record should give a history of his movements during the war, his wounds, and any medals he might have earned.

So now we wait.  While waiting, however, I decided to google a bit more using some of the other information I gleaned from John Fraser 13/993a’s record in the Nominal Rolls.  From that scant record, I know that he joined the Auckland Mounted Rifles and was part of the Third Reinforcements.  That information was enough to lead me to the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Association, an historical society dedicated to this particular subgroup of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force.  The Auckland Mounted Rifles have their own page within this group, and there’s a great deal of history particular to this unit.

And just while writing this, I discovered that the digitized copy has become available.  Serendipitous timing!  Actually, it’s probably been available for some days, but I’ve been waiting for an email to tell me that, and I just happened to go back to the website and look and there it was.  Now the record is publicly available to all who are interested (and indeed, I could use some help deciphering some of the handwriting, as I’m terrible at that), but I can tell you straight off, based on the particulars in the file, that this is indeed my John Fraser.  From a quick glance I see a record of his being wounded in the Gallipoli campaign seriously enough that he was discharged as physically unfit for duty, and then not long after being returned to New Zealand he managed to enlist again, this time in an infantry battalion, and was sent off to France, where he was wounded again!  No wonder he had pain for life.  On this second deployment it appears he was promoted at least once to Lance Corporal.  It also appears that he had a period of rebelliousness, as there are some mentions of forfeiture of pay and so forth, apparently for unauthorized absences.  I’ll have to read those more carefully.  Nevertheless, this fits with what my father has previously told me about his father, that he was wounded in Gallipoli, that he was discharged for the wound, and that he then signed up again to go to France, where he was wounded a second time.

It seems it was this second wound which put him in hospital in England for a while, and the family history is that this is where he met his wife, my grandmother, while she was working there as a nurse.

But that story will have to wait for another time.

France

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Apologies, dear readers, for the delay between posts, but like many of you in late December, I’ve been on holiday.  Carole and I were in France for two weeks, and while I did explore a little bit down a side avenue of research, the main purpose of the trip was family.  Living family, that is.  Carole is French in origin, and we were there to spend the holidays with her family.

We flew in via non-stop from Seattle to Paris, and direct from the airport caught the TGV to Montpellier, and from there a regional train to Carcassonne.  The TGV is France’s high-speed passenger rail system, and the trains can get up to 200 mph, which would be pretty exciting except they’re so dang smooth on the rails that there’s not much sensation of speed until suddenly you pass one going the other way.  The other train is suddenly and momentarily there, creating a split-second of a ‘whoomph’ sound, and then it’s gone, nothing but the briefest of blurs.  Certainly there’s no time to notice any details about it at all.  The first thought is well, that must have been a short train, and then it occurs to you that you’re on a pretty long train, and that other train was probably similar in its length, and it dawns on you just how fast you really are moving over the ground.  Being the geeky sort, I did attempt to clock the speed with a GPS, but besides being an efficient way of moving about the country, the train is also an efficient blocker of GPS signals.  I never was able to get a lock.

The other thing to note about the TGV, and the SNCF railways in general, is how to make proper use of the bar car.  In the bar car there is a large and extensive menu of food, and behind the bar are various cabinets and ovens and such.  From this one might deduce that a meal can be obtained, but the veteran traveler of the railways knows that looks can be deceiving.  The thought of a hot sandwich, such as a Croque Monsieur (a favorite of mine, actually), was quite appealing when I saw it advertised, but when I asked for it in my halting and very bad French, the gentleman behind the bar was able to convey to me that his oven was out of order and so there was no hot food available.  It’s true that he did use language to tell me this, but the message really got through when he pointed to the sign on the oven that said… well, it said something in French, but it was red and it looked a lot like an “out of order” sign to me, so I got the point.  Not to be deterred, I selected a pair of cold sandwiches.  The barman went through his cabinets and…  the date stamp on the sandwiches was expired.  He looked for others:  expired.  He went through every cabinet.  In the end, he had exactly one type of small, uninteresting sandwich which was still safely edible, according to the label, and cabinets full of expired food, next to the inoperable oven.  Carole tells me that French people don’t really expect to buy food on the train, they usually bring their own, and so would we have done except we had just come from the airport, so I gather the barman was probably caught by surprise by a customer actually… gasp… ordering from the menu.

The coffee was good, however.

At Lyon there was an announcement over the intercom, something about “action industrielle”, and Carole informed me that beyond Lyon the bar car was operated by a different union (I think), and this union was on strike, so from this point the bar car was closed.  Either that, or the strike was just starting at the time we were in Lyon.  I was still very jet-lagged and tired, so my French was practically non-existent.  It did improve on later days, especially after copious consumption of coffee.

Once arrived in Carcassonne we were met at the station by Carole’s brother, Lionel, who drove us the remaining 8 miles to his mother (and Carole’s stepmother) Eugenie’s house in Montirat.

Montirat is probably not well known to most tourists, despite being just a handful of miles from what is arguably the third-most-visited tourist destination in the country.  It is a small village, with a population of about 70, situated at the end of a narrow, winding country road that is not much more than a spur from an only slightly larger regional highway.  It does boast a gite, or holiday rental home, but these are more likely to be occupied by French nationals on holiday than by foreign tourists (though I can highly recommend gites de France from personal experience on other occasions).  There’s a small church.  There’s no school.  The nearest bakery isn’t even in town, it’s out on the D3 highway.  What Montirat does have, however, is peace, quiet, and old-world charm.  It sits atop a hill, giving it a little bit of a view of the surrounding vineyards, and its main road curls around the hill in a way that would delight Tolkien enthusiasts (think Hobbiton).  At the apex of the hill, across the road from Eugenie’s house, are the crumbling remains of some old stone structure, redolent with hints of an unknown medieval history, now mostly buried in the grass and earth as farmers have gone about their business around it over the centuries.  The old ruin is all that remains of a probably 13th century watchtower, once part of an early warning system for the locals, who in the event of attack could have time to take refuge behind the walls of the nearby fortified city of Carcassonne.

We, meanwhile, took refuge from the winter rain and wind by spending our first days indoors, basically being lazy while recovering from jet lag and visiting with Lionel and Eugenie.  We ate well (it is France, after all), perhaps too well, a trend that was to continue throughout our stay and for which perhaps our stomachs were not entirely prepared.

After a few days of easing into the French country life and decompressing from the stresses of work and air travel, it was time to move on.  Once again on the train, Carcassonne to Grenoble, with a change in Lyon, and soon we found ourselves at Carole’s mother Anne-Marie’s in-town condo, a somewhat different experience from the cozy country house in Montirat with its chicken coop and its big yard.  By now we were resurfacing into wakefulness, and we actually got out and walked about the city a little.  The weather even cooperated for this, clearing to magnificent crystalline blue skies for a day or two, enough to reveal the snow-covered Alps in their gleaming splendor looming directly over the city.

Even some of my French now began to return to me, although only if people were patient enough to speak very slowly, articulate very deliberately, and use only the simplest of words and grammar could I understand them.  However, I was able to get the gist of the conversations going on around me, and even put in a word now and then, stunning listeners with… well, not my erudition, but more likely my inability to speak even as well as a four-year-old.  Perhaps the simple sound of their beautiful language being mangled in my mouth shocked them senseless.  At least I didn’t ask for agua con gaz like I did during my first visit to France, twelve years ago.

A few very pleasant days, some more excellent meals, and it was time to take the TGV back to Paris, this time alighting at the Gare de Lyon in the heart of town, being met by our friend Isabelle, who with her daughter Lucie kindly hosted us for the remainder of our stay.  Isabelle and Lucie both speak English, and so now my hard-won language skills could fall back into disuse and disrepair.  Isabelle even took us to see a show, How to Become Parisian in One Hour, which was given almost entirely in English.

On another day we met another friend, Natalie, and wandered the streets, and it was while on the Champs Elysees and again near the Eiffel Tower that we encountered armed soldiers, in pairs, patrolling.  We had seen them in the airport, which wasn’t so surprising, and in the train station, which still made some sense, but when I saw men in camouflage carrying machine guns on the streets of downtown I really started to wonder if something was up.  I’m not sure if it’s a reaction to recent events, or simply stepped up alertness at key points during the holidays, when thousands of people are out and about, but mostly I thought about how those solders didn’t look a day over 18, and just how comfortable was I with a teenager with his finger poised over the trigger guard of a FAMAS or SIG 550 (I’m pretty sure I saw both models in use).

But, nothing happened.

Now, just to justify this pure travel story on a genealogy blog, I did do a little research while in France.  Since we were, after all, visiting Carole’s family, I decided to research her ancestry a little.  As it turns out, Lionel has an entire book about their father’s ancestry, and Anne-Marie had several pages about her family, and very quickly we traced ancestors back to the 16th century in Italy, Germany, Switzerland, and of course France, with a number of connections reaching into Africa.  There are hints at some very interesting family stories, just waiting to be uncovered, but that will have to be another time, I think.

Because, after all, I returned home to Seattle to find a package waiting for me:  seventy-five pages, on CD, of my father’s personnel file from the Union Steam Ship Company, courtesy of the Wellington City Archives.

Costs


The estimate from the British National Archives came back fairly quick.  It seems the ‘pouch’ is only two pages, so that’s not much.  However, their charge to make a copy is £3.50 per page, and to have them mail it via airmail (the cheapest option) is another £11 (I have no idea why sending the equivalent of a two-page letter should cost so much).  I’ve asked for a revised estimate to have it made available for digital download instead, but I know what that will end up being:  no charge for the download, but the same per-page copying charge.

By contrast, the New Zealand Defence Force Archives sent me a file by parcel post with dozens of pages — for no charge at all.

That’s not to say that all the New Zealand archive sources are free.  The Births, Deaths, and Marriages office of the Department of Internal Affairs charges NZ$20 per registry copy, and NZ$26 for a certificate (but they don’t charge for postage, regardless of the destination).  I don’t know yet if the records from the Wellington City Archives will have a charge; they’ll let me know when they locate the record (I think I’m in a queue for that service).

ScotlandsPeople, a government office/website geared at Scottish genealogical information, has a different system.  There you purchase ‘credits’ for £7 per batch of 30.  Then it costs 1 credit to view a page of search results (this feels silly to me), and 5 credits to view and download an ‘image’ (which is essentially the document of interest).  It makes no difference how many pages comprise the document, however.  I thought this was going to be expensive, until I encountered the National Archives fee structure.  Now ScotlandsPeople feels positively cheap.

This is in contrast to online services like Ancestry.com, which uses a flat monthly or annual membership fee.  Once the flat fee is paid, you have unlimited access to whatever they have until your membership expires.  It might seem expensive up front, at least for a ‘worldwide’ account, but pretty quickly one realizes what a great value it is.

On the other hand, FamilySearch.org is free.  They don’t have quite as much data as Ancestry, and the interface is not quite as nice, but they have different data, some of which is not available on Ancestry.  They’re especially good for UK census data.  Really, it seems that one needs to consult both.

Oh, and did I mention about the Yatman family history book?  My uncle confirmed that it was indeed the book he had referenced, and what’s more he had a spare copy to send me.  That’s $325 saved right there.  Thank you, Brian!

Of course, I’m not yet at the phase of travelling overseas for in-person research.