My mother died in March. Almost immediately she was reincarnated as paperwork.
As a son I could miss her, but for the moment I am the executor of her estate. As such, I have not been able to miss her yet because there has just been too damn much to do.
On the plus side, mom was an exquisitely responsible person. I have known executors and families to walk into an estate situation and find pollution problems, foreclosures, condemnation of property, absence of insurances, and massive debt. My brother-in-law, in fact, ran into four of those five problems when his father died some years back.
Mom, on the other hand, died flush. There was some money in her bank account, the house had been paid off, she was never late on the property taxes, and she had a single credit card bill for about $1,200. Apart from the funeral and the medical bills associated with her lymphoma treatments, mom barely owed $300 to the world at large.
And yet, even with this level of responsibility, and a house that has been kept in extremely good shape — my father was a handyman and janitor, and he took loving care of the building until he died in 2005 — the amount of paperwork generated by the simple, unavoidable act of dying weighs about as much as my mother did before she got sick.
Mom Co. Being an executor is a lot like being the guy sitting next to the emergency door on the plane. You have to be detached enough to stave off emotion and get to work. You have to immediately understand that someone’s death, even a parent’s, is a business, and that you are now president of the company. For dozens of members of my family, mom was tantalizingly alive in boxes of photos and trinkets and memories in the days before her funeral. For me, she was a client, with a lot of outstanding accounts to settle.
When you look at a person’s life in terms of her lifestyle, you quickly realize how much there is to keep track of. The very day mom died I had to make funeral arrangements, including flowers, call the Social Security Administration, call the state Division of Pensions and Benefits, cancel cable, cancel long distance, cancel the car insurance, inform her life insurance company, cancel a couple magazines, and collect her outstanding bills.
It takes 11 business days from the date of death to probate a will. Bit of advice about probate, by the way — ignore Suze Ormand. She keeps hawking living trusts, but in New Jersey, they are neither needed nor especially helpful. New Jersey is a divinely easy state in which to probate a will. I think it took me about 45 minutes. It just takes 11 days before the state accepts you coming in with the will and the death certificate.
So far, probate has been the easiest part of the whole affair. You just show up, prove your case and collect your letters testamentary and short certificates (pronouncing that you, as executor, are now for all intents and purposes, the estate).
With short certificates, Round 2 of the paperwork begins — setting up an estate bank account, filing for life and pension insurances, collecting balances due, and transferring property from mom’s name into mine.
You need death certificates and short certificates for everything connected to the estate — make sure you get a lot of them. I would suggest lining up all the accounts for which you will need them (any insurance, any source of income, and anything involving a title or deed to ownership) and then get about five more.
Sucking it up. The thing about being an executor is, no one believes you. Idiots looking to beat the system have ensured that no one trusts you, even while they tell you how sorry they are for your loss.
Insurance companies are the worst and the most frustrating. They have good reason to be distrustful — I can’t tell you how many people have tried to tell me how to beat mom’s medical bills.
Legally, no one can take my money for mom’s debts, and people seem to like to believe that this means I shouldn’t pay her bills. Please don’t listen to anyone who tries this logic on you. If you don’t pay the bills, the company owed will simply take out a lien on the house and collect when it’s sold.
Also, it’s just morally reprehensible, it’s stealing, and it’s the reason honest guys like me have to jump through so many hurdles to do the right thing.
Do not believe the insurance company rep when she tells you that processing a life claim will take 10 or 12 business days. Mom died on March 26. On May 23 I got a letter from her insurance company saying that I needed to send in a notarized affidavit listing the names, addresses, and social security numbers of all surviving children of my parents’ marriage. I already had called the company twice (well after 12 days had passed) asking if I needed to do anything else to facilitate the claim. Both times I was told no. And that it would be about 10 to 12 business days.
I still haven’t seen that check.
The house. Before anyone goes off thinking I’m all about the money, understand that dying is an expensive pastime. I do not need mom’s insurance money for myself, and even if I got the whole settlement (which I won’t, because my two siblings each get a third), it would not last me all that long.
I need the money because though mom died flush, there is a nice juicy house just sitting there generating tax income for Hamilton Township. And it costs $3,000 a year to insure it, now that no one lives there.
Coupled with the medical bills outstanding, there is not enough to pay off the debt with what is left in the bank, now that the funeral scooped 10 grand from there.
I’ve had no shortage of people prognosticating that it’ll be a while before the house moves. If money were not an obstacle it might be a decent idea to wait. But money is an obstacle, and I want to start the process as early as I can. If 10 days in insurance world really equals eight weeks to me, I don’t want to know how long real estate years are.
Rather than sit on the house, all we can do is make the place look attractive in order to sell it, which takes a hell of a lot of work when someone has lived in one spot for 49 years and never threw anything away. Still, the idea is to “stage” the house if you want to move it.
Staging – the process of making the house look livable without making it look still-lived-in – is important. Mercer County Community College is offering a one-day course on staging a house to sell called “Five Things To Do Before Putting Your Home On the Market on Thursday, June 11 ,at 6 p.m. at its West Windsor campus. Cost: $30. Visit www,mccc.edu.
Though the course is not geared toward executors, executors could certainly benefit from knowing a few tips my own real estate agent, Deb Richford of B&R Realty Century 21 in Cream Ridge, gave me.
Curb appeal. Before anyone steps into your home, they will see it from the outside. If it looks like the remnants of a trailer park after a tornado, no one will go inside to notice the solid structure, the fabulous decor, or the really bitchin’ game room in your basement.
It’s all about the kitchen. Mom’s kitchen is pretty small and my family way too big. And yet whenever people gathered at mom’s, we all packed into that kitchen.
Whatever you do, make the kitchen look nice. Mom had a certain Colonial feel, and we tapped into that to make it feel a bit more authentic. People want to know they can hang out in a cozy kitchen.
Flow and comfort. You need to be minimalistic without being sterile. Bedrooms should look comfy-cozy, bathrooms should look functional, offices should look neat and tidy.
But do not make the mistake of leaving shoes next to the bed, or paperwork on the desk. You want someone to feel as if they could use a room for a similar purpose, not as if they’ve broken into somebody’s house while they’re out at work.
Parting thoughts. I assume that after the house sells and the bills are settled and I can let go, I will miss my mother. Maybe that’ll have to wait until I’m done with all the paper, but I am looking forward to missing her eventually.
It’ll be nice to have the memories replace the stack of bills.