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)