Difficult conversations to have before a parent dies.
The days and weeks leading up to his passing, we had casual conversations about his finances, his health wishes, and his faith. At the time, I wasn’t considering that he might actually die. If I had, I would have asked deeper questions and have gotten clearer directives. It would have saved our family a lot of time, a lot of anguish, and a lot of worry moving forward.
- What are the medical directives?
The last three weeks of my dad’s life was spent in an emergency room, ICU, a regular hospital room, a rehabilitation center, and then back to the hospital’s emergency room and ICU which is where he was when he succumbed. At every step, my dad made it perfectly clear to family: “I DO NOT want to linger. I DO NOT want to be resuscitated.” In order to obey his wishes however, the medical professionals needed to see a written legal document stating those final decisions.
Luckily, my mom knew there was such a written directive and where to find it. If it had been left up to me, I would have had no idea where it was. Since then, my mom has created for herself an easy to find “end of life file.”
- What are the death directives?
My parents’ generation is used to this typical end of life routine: you die; you have a viewing of the body; a funeral; and then a burial at a cemetery. I had told my parents that my wishes are not to be buried but to be cremated. After several discussions over the years on the pros and cons of this type of death directive, my dad decided that he too wanted to be cremated. So, when he passed, preparing for cremation was how we began to proceed after his death.
Unfortunately, my mom received some pressure from some family members, friends, and church leaders that she should “rethink” that position. My mom soon got confused and unsettled about the cremation decision and even started to waiver. I had to firmly remind her that it was cremation, not a burial, that was truly my dad’s wishes.
It goes without saying that emotions run high after a death. To remain confident with the death directives when a parent dies, have their instructions written down and signed so that there is no waffling with their decision.
- Status of Family Trust/Personal Will
Over the years, my dad let everyone know that he and my mom had a family trust and personal wills. Silly me, I never thought to ask to read them before he died. I thought it was too personal, too invasive. After all, that was their business. Bad idea.
It wasn’t until after he died, that I got the chance to read these important legal documents and what I found was that legally, they were nothing but a lot of gobbly-goop words. You see, to save money, my dad used basic, ordinary templates he found on line as the basis for his trust and will. In actuality, they served no real legal purpose; they were long on generic legal-ease and short on what he owned or valued.
If I had looked at these documents sooner, I would have been able to persuade my dad to spend a little money to make sure these important documents truly represented all he had accumulated in his life and provided the legal protection necessary for passing on his property to my mom and his daughters.
Luckily for my mom, the state they lived in, Arizona, is a community property state so her rights were ultimately protected. However, going forward after my mom dies, my sisters and I would have no legal standing. Recently, my mom and I went to an attorney who specializes in family law, trusts and wills. He drew up a new Last Will and Testament (my mom doesn’t need a trust because she doesn’t have that many assets), a Beneficiary Trust (a relatively new document in Arizona that protects her assets from going to probate), a Health Directive, and a Power-of-Attorney. There are no questions about the remaining property when my mom passes away.
- Power of Attorney
Just who was responsible for making legal decisions if my parents got incapacitated or when a parent dies? My dad’s paperwork wasn’t complete on this. When he was in the hospital and he wanted me to take over paying his bills, I mentioned my standing with his Power-of-Attorney so that I had legal rights in taking over his finances. He was confused on this. He thought a Power-of-Attorney was meant for medical decisions only, not financial; that anyone could handle his financial matters. So, the way his Power-of –Attorney read was that my mom had first ranking followed by my sister, a nurse, who lived close by. I wasn’t going to push the issue with him not feeling well so I did the best I could representing him. That wasn’t a problem when he was alive but after he died, that was a whole other matter. Every phone call I made, I was asked, “who are you?” And then my mom had to give permission for the creditors, the IRS, Social Security, banks, etc. to talk to me – over and over and over again.
Find out who your parent wants to handle their financial affairs after their death before they die, and secure it with a proper Power-of-Attorney along with updating their financial institutions with this information. If they want their spouse to assume responsibility, have an assistant also named to help the surviving spouse with the thousands of decisions that have to be made. Even though she never had any prior responsibility with their finances, my mom is very capable to go forward but needed a little help from me in framing what she was requesting, pressing back when needed, and navigating the different financial systems. Thank heavens for my Apple phone conference calling feature which allowed us to have three-way calling. It would have been so much easier if all of this was arranged before my dad passed away.
- What bills are owed?
My dad took sole responsibility for paying my parent’s bills. We all knew they have had financial issues in the past as a result of my dad being “creative” with his bill paying. When my dad became incapacitated, he asked me to take over for “a couple of months” until he could resume his duties. It literally took me two days to learn his “system” and even then, I wasn’t quite sure I was doing it right. When he died, I quickly found out there was A LOT he didn’t tell me or rather, there was A LOT I didn’t think to ask him. There were many “surprises” I had to settle that I learned as I went. It took two months to find everything and get on sure footing going forward. I am confident it would have been a lot less worrisome if there was some previous knowledge.
- Social Security Rights
I had always heard that when a person dies, it is the family’s responsibility to notify Social Security of their passing so that there is a seamless transition for the remaining spouse. But guess what? Times have changed and that isn’t necessary any more. Because a person’s social security number is on every medical record, the hospital (or whatever institution they are with when a parent dies) automatically notifies Social Security. We didn’t find out about this change until AFTER the mortgage was paid and the bank account suddenly was in the negative. Luckily, my mom had a savings account she could go to to pay the difference for the house payment until she was reimbursed.
It took me 3 phone calls to Social Security to find out 1) payments are made in the rears i.e.; the current month’s payment reflects the previous month’s accounting; 2) Social Security removes payments immediately after death no matter the timing of the check; and 3) YOU have to ask for the money that is rightfully yours back!!! Oh—and no one tells you this stuff. It is on you to ask!!
To get the money back, you have to file a Form 1724 and send it in to Social Security. Then they have 90 days to return your money. We hand delivered it to the nearest Social Security office to speed things up. But as of this writing, it has been 120 days and we still have not gotten that last payment returned. Ugh.
It has been an honor to help my parents with these critical end of life transactions. But I learned the hard way after the death of my dad that the best time to have these important end-of-life conversations is way before your parent dies. As difficult this may be, it is better to have everything settled and agreed upon before a parent dies, then trying to figure everything out after they have passed.
For another perspective on this topic, please read: How to Talk To Your Parents About Their Funeral Arrangements.