Probate and the Executor, Part 1


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)

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A Final Voyage


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


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.