Dear Michael: My father recently died and we aren't sure where to turn. His attorney retired and moved away years ago and we don't know where to begin. We have all kinds of issues to deal with and Mom hasn't been the best at keeping up with the financial affairs over the years either. She seems too bright and cheery right now considering the circumstances of losing her husband of fifty-five years and were not quite sure what to make of it. What suggestions do you have? – Lost a Loved One.
Dear Lost a Loved One: First of all, I cannot give you any legal advice, but I can, after losing my own father in January, give you a background on all of the different items that need to be sorted out.
First and foremost, you'll need death certificates. If your mortician tells you you'll need five or six, you can double that number because everyone is going to want a certified copy of the death certificate. In order to do anything with Social Security, life insurance companies, bank accounts that were solely in your dad's name, virtually anything that your father owned or received income from is going to require a death certificate before the institution in question can even 'legally' talk to you.
By now, I hope you've gained access to the will. The problem with many attorneys in smaller communities is when they die or pack up and leave, sometimes the will they've written decades ago – which traditionally was left in the attorney's office in days gone by – might have disappeared and you can't find a copy. It's always good to have the original or certified copy of the will somewhere close by where you can put your mitts on it. I always recommend keeping a copy in the freezer – it's fireproof and if you put it in a ZipLoc bag, it won't get soggy if your electricity goes out. But it's easy to find – right under the fresh, frozen beans.
In the will, your mother was likely named as personal representative. The personal representatives job is to collect all of the information about the ownership of the decedent's property and decide how to go about transferring this property from the decedent to whomever the will states it should go to – again, typically, Mom.
If your mom's not up to speed on financial affairs, she might need help talking 'lingo' to insurance companies where Dad had life insurance, banks, pension companies if he was receiving any pensions, credit card companies, Social Security, etc.
If she trusts one or more of the children to help her, she can have a Limited Power of Attorney granted to one or more of the children so they are allowed to assist her in talking to all of these different entities. You'll need to send them your POA forms so they can then speak to you, as well as your mother. You can have a POA drafted by an attorney of choice.
Now, beware the 'bright-eyed' syndrome you're seeing in your Mom. For the first six months or so, your mom is probably going to go into a little brain shock. My mom talked about waking up and turning to speak to my father in the opposite easy chair for months after he died. That's the brain's way of coping and, oftentimes, you won't see the true scope of your mother's grief until some time passes.
The loss of a spouse is rated the number one most shocking thing a person can go through – followed by divorce, moving, changing jobs, etc. When two people have lived together for this amount of time, they have grown together – literally – whereby each possessed qualities and abilities that allowed them both to live and thrive in the world today. The closest thing you can equate it to would be losing the use of your arms or your legs suddenly and having to deal with such a change.
When a spouse suddenly is suddenly thrust into facing a future without having a 'part' of themselves, they can be happy one minute, crying and/or despondent the next, angry at you for no reason, and the moods can and will swing.
Don't take it personally – she is going through the stages of loss – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, acceptance. The problem is your mom isn't going to go through these stages smoothly and efficiently – such as one month in denial, one month in anger, etc. etc. She's going to be in one stage one minute and the next in one or more of the other stages – and just when you think she's coming to terms, boom, something happens or a memory sends her back to stage one, or two.
Try to be patient, try to understand what a devastating loss this is in addition of having to deal with an entirely new reality of life alone, and let her work through these stages. Sometimes you'll need to poke and prod her to get her out of silent mode (expect blow ups – again, anger is part of the process and sometimes you have to fall on the sword and be the focus of the anger yourself cause Dad isn't around to take the anger), and let her process at her own speed. If she tends to be wallowing, it's a good time to get her really mad at you so these underlying feelings can vent off and she'll feel better afterwards.
Good luck with everything, sorry to hear about your father, understand this new journey is both emotional and financial fraught for your Mom, and remember to give yourself time to grieve, as well. After all, everyone experienced this loss.
This article is not to be deemed as legal advice in any manner. Please consult an attorney for any legal advice you may require.