Death is just the beginning

No, I’m not talking about spiritual continuity after this life is over. I’m talking about the bureaucratic tasks that remain for those the departed leave behind. It’s the front end of that bureaucratic mess that I’m bogged down in now.

Even when someone has done extensive preparations, as my mother did before her death last month, there’s still a lot to do.

It starts right after someone dies. Within hours, the mortuary wants to settle on desired “arrangements” and get their check. That’s the first step. In my mom’s case, this was relatively simple. Cremation. Immediate. That is, no “viewing” necessary prior to cremation. Container? In her case, a simple cardboard box which delivered her to the crematorium. Apparently the body can’t go in without the box. What urn? Again, a simple container. Her remains will stay there until later in the spring when we’ll scatter them out near the Diamond Head buoy in the same area where we spread her brother quite a few years ago now. It’s what she wanted, so that’s what we’re doing.

The mortuary also triggers two other important bits. First, there’s the obituary. A simple, brief death announcement is free. Just the basic facts. If you want more, something that really says something real about the person who has died, you’re at the mercy of the newspaper monopoly. We stayed with the freebie. The rest appeared here, and on my sister’s blog.

Second, and more important, the mortuary files paperwork for the death certificate, the official one-page document from the State Department of Health that proves one is really dead. As we have discovered, you need this in order to deal with the basics. The process stalls until the death certificates are ready. And, we were warned, DOH takes several weeks to deliver them. The warnings were correct. It took several weeks.

The certificates are needed for just about everything. Social Security was about the only place that didn’t require a death certificate. I telephoned to inform them of my mother’s passing. They took the information, expressed condolences, and contacted Bank of Hawaii to retrieve the most recent payment that had been auto deposited.

However, every one else seems to need a death certificate. The state’s employee retirement system, banks, investment accounts, etc., all need the documentation.

So my mother’s trust attorney, who we are relying on to guide us through the process of settling her estate, advised us to delay our initial consultation until the DOH delivered the certificates. No use spinning our wheels without that essential document.

They finally came in last week and our appointment is on Friday. I’ve got the “inventory” forms and am trying to reconstruct my mother’s finances. Checking accounts. Savings accounts. Certificates of Deposit. Stocks, some in investment accounts, some held individually. A lot in a few places. A few dollars in others. But they have to be located. Other assets. A seven year old car. Furniture. A mountain of genealogical research. A little jewelry, most of the costume variety. Real property? Just the house. All complicated by the fact that she had been slowly consolidating, while her careful filing of records didn’t keep up. I just can’t pin down the status of some accounts. We’ll have to rely on the banks to search their records to confirm the accounts. Trust your banker. Not much else you can do.

Hopefully I’ll have it all together by Friday and ready for the lawyer, who will hopefully then prepare the documentation we need to begin closing accounts and collecting all the various assets for eventually distribution according to my mom’s wishes.

Somewhere along the way, I’ll have to prepare her 2012 taxes. And then figure out about the taxes covering the 29 days of 2013 before her death. Yes, that thing about death and taxes? It appears that the tax part goes on after the death part.

Meanwhile, there’s the ongoing process of clearing out her house. My sister, Bonnie, is taking the lead as she’s been living in my parents house for most of the past five years, providing hands-on care as they reached the end. It’s a process of discovery. What’s in this box/closet/drawer/etc? File, as appropriate, in one of several categories: trash…thrift store…garage sale…appraise…family heirloom…help, further review needed. It’s likely to be a long, convoluted process.

I wasn’t being flippant in suggesting that dying is a lot of work for the living. That’s just the way it is.

6 responses to “Death is just the beginning

  1. Yup, I went through this same thing a few years ago with my parents. The person can have been in the ground for weeks but they are not officially dead until you have the death certificate. It’s the same old bureaucratic process. If it hasn’t been officially documented it hasn’t happened.

    We ran into the flip side of that too. Both of my parents had Swiss annuities. As they passed their statistical life expectancy, every year we got a demand from the Swiss to prove that they were still alive. So, every year we had to send them a notarized “proof of life”. Contrary to what you might think, you are not really alive or dead until officialdom has the correct paperwork. You probably have to have the death certificate in hand as you approach the Pearly Gates or Saint Peter will turn you away because you are not “really” dead.

  2. When my mother died in 1996 I was astonished that the Social Security Administration didn’t require any more verification after the phone call. (And I wondered how many heirs delay making the phone call until further benefits have accrued.) Your experience has revived my curiosity about whether they have a system which interfaces with the state agencies producing death certificates.

  3. I feel your pain… I’m going through the same thing in a sense right now.

    I’m a single child… sadly things would have been less complicated had my mom not had a will and everything would have been transferred to me.

    Now I have to wait till I turn 50 and in the meantime have to hope that the trustee will do the best with the trust until I gain control of it.


  4. Estate taxes (federal and state) take close to 45 %. for every dollar over $800,000. The numbers change year to year, your trust attorney and CPA should be able to guide and in the end they will take a huge %. Big industry. And if she has stocks it may be financially wise to delay up to 6 months depending on their valuations. The more you got, the more complicated it gets. Stay strong. Aloha, C.

  5. Survivors/heirs have no picnic following death. Our mom died in 2005 and she was about as well organized on earth as anyone I have known.

    Still sorting through the tax complications despite a well planned estate and a brother executor who was a veteran attorney in same state. I can only imagine the hurdles had she not been so well prepared beforehand.

    My younger brother succumbed in 2007 in Hilo. His issues were different. I was left to closing his affairs. I found state health people cooperative in processing death certificates and mortuary-crematory considerate. ( I attended to obituary, life celebration and disposal of ashes with help from many others). But it was taxing at a time when you are in grief.

    I have no ready answers into simplfying the complex issues following death.

    Patience helps some.

    A lingering footnote is a t& t which declined to close out his cell phone account (that I had been paying for with help from members of our family). The idiots wrote back that he should “reconsider.” I am damn sure he would have liked that option since he fought so hard to live. How indecent of these corporate bastards.

  6. compare and decide

    Here is a website by a widow with young children whose husband was hit by a van while bicycling back in 2009. It provides advice on what families should do to prepare now (and she means NOW!) for the inevitable. (She has been on Good Morning America and was profiled by the New York Times and other news outlets telling her story.)

    Since her late husband had not signed any Advanced Healthcare Directive (‘living will’) to notify authorities what to do if he was hopelessly and permanently incapacitated, she was forced to make the agonizing choice to ‘pull the plug’ and take his broken body off of respiration after doctors told her that his case was hopeless.

    To make matters worse, she had to do this at a time when she was worrying about a number of other things. At that time, she was a homemaker and not bringing in a salary, and she was also dealing with insurance companies and so forth. Also, although her husband and herself had written a will, he had procrastinated and not signed it. Big mistake.

    But to make things worse, there is an issue that she had to face that earlier generations have not had to face.



    Email, insurance, business accounts, online bank accounts, social media — everything nowadays seems to require a password. And her husband had conscientiously memorized his passwords and not written them down. She does mention somewhere on her blog that one can download a password manager onto one’s computer to resurrect passwords, but that does not cover all passwords.

    Just imagine if your mother had the life of a contemporary person in her thirties when she passed! If you don’t have passwords, it takes all day on the phone just to deal with one entity like a bank or a credit card company to confirm that you are authorized to represent someone who has passed away (or so you claim that they have).

    On her website she does offer some free templates for things like a will, power of attorney, a living will, etc., all based on the Washington state official forms. This is all useful for people who might not immediately have the money to sit down and hammer this out with a lawyer. But it’s all stuff that people can do in one afternoon. But we don’t, generally.

    Here’s a snippet from a WSJ article on 25 documents that you need in order to die without bureaucratic complications (essential in dealing with insurance companies).

    Sometimes people hold onto so many papers that loved ones can’t find the important ones easily.

    In 2008, Jane Bissler, a counselor in Kent, Ohio, approached her then-87-year-old mother about organizing her documents. Because her mom was a widow with relatively simple finances and two homes, Ms. Bissler, 57, says she figured it would be a relatively simple task.

    Instead, it took an entire year for Ms. Bissler and her mother to go through all of her papers, which included documents from eight bank accounts, utility bills from the 1950s and reams of canceled checks.

    The two of them pared down the stash from four four-drawer filing cabinets to one two-drawer cabinet, shredding anything extraneous. Ms. Bissler and her mother visited banks and brokerages to ensure she was listed on all of her mother’s accounts. Her mother died in May 2009.

    “It would have been a total nightmare if we hadn’t gone through it all with her,” Ms. Bissler says. “It was that Depression-era stuff where you keep everything and hide other things.” Ms. Bissler estimates that having the documents organized ahead of time spared them from ordering an additional 15 copies of the death certificate and “years” of time.

    We don’t have filing cabinets full of stuff anymore. Instead, we have the Internet and its passwords.

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