Prepare for Parents’ Death

Feb 12, 2014 by

last will and testamentMy mother passed away January 31 following a stroke-caused vehicle crash and after eight days in the hospital, the last five in end-of-life comfort care. I’ve learned much about her and about myself over the past couple of weeks, partly that she spent a lot of time preparing properly for her death, and I spent next to none. Shame on me. Perhaps this will be obvious to all of you, but choosing to wait until you’re sitting beside a loved one’s deathbed to read and comprehend a health directive, Trust Agreement, Last Will and Testament, and Power of Attorney designation is not a good plan.

My Mother’s Preparations

My eldest brother, who moved onto my aging Mom’s hobby farm several years ago to take over physical chores and caretaking, brought to the hospital where we four brothers had convened a beautifully organized three-ring binder containing the originals of a health directive and all the documents related to my mother’s estate. My Mom had created this binder in 1992 after clearly going to a lot of trouble and expense in working with an attorney to lay out all this documentation.

My guess is—I do not recall—my mother showed me this stuff, or at least told me about it, over twenty years ago when she’d completed this true masterpiece. But two weeks ago, sitting shell-shocked in her hospital room, I felt as if I was seeing it for the first time. I learned anew that she’d designated me as her Attorney-in-Fact in the event of her incapacity and as Executor of her will. Unfortunately but not surprisingly, in her hospital room where my mother lay broken and stricken, my brain could not absorb or process the implications of these documents.

Screw-Up #1

Until lately, I had only a general, layperson’s idea of what Power-of-Attorney means. After I’d been at the hospital three or four days, I finally was able to read and begin to grasp the implications of my designation as Attorney-in-Fact. I realized that we (my brothers and I) might need me to take certain action as Attorney-in-Fact. But to invoke my designation, we needed a statement declaring Mom’s incapacity (of which there was no question) from each of us and from her doctor.

By the time I’d come to this realization, two of my brothers had returned temporarily to distant homes. All four of us were at the hospital for the first two or three days. Collecting identical incapacity certifications from each brother then would have been a snap. Instead, we had to go through the hassle of coordinating language, notarizing, scanning, emailing, and scrounging for printing two of the four statements. And it took two full days to squeeze an incapacity statement from my mother’s excellent trauma doctor—not because he had doubt about her incapacity, but likely because he’s busy and probably eight or twelve attorneys had to stick their noses into the matter.

We did get the Power-of-Attorney in place, but just two days before my Mom’s passing, which instantly terminates the Attorney-in-Fact’s powers. Still, with my brothers’ help, I was able to get done a couple of tasks that we thought needed to be done during those two days. But that was a close call.

Screw-Up #2

“What’s an Executor do?” That was my first question when I learned, in my Mom’s hospital room, that she’d appointed me Executor of her will. Well, I’ve since learned that one thing an Executor does is quickly secure a deceased’s assets. I was home a few days before I took steps to make this happen, which was after a cow (or goat, as the case may be) or two had escaped from the barn. I just hope the goons allow computer access at the prison in which I may soon be residing, or it’s curtains for Money Counselor.

Also once home I phoned one my closest and best friends (he’s also a brother-in-law-in-law, I think—his sister is married to one of my brothers) who, during the rare moments he’s not lounging in local drinkeries and eateries, works as a distinguished attorney. I asked him whether someone was going to tell me what I’m supposed to be doing as Executor or do I have to figure it out on my own. I found scant comfort in his answer, which he punctuated with “you’re not going to like this,” in reference to the entirety of the ‘Executoring’ process. Great. And he knows me pretty well.

Lessons Learned

Here’s what uniquely sucks about bungling this stuff: this may well have been my only chance in life to get it right. Also, evidently my Mom trusted that I would do a good job, and, though I think I’ve found my stride now, I surely got off to a shaky start. If only my Mom had told me she’d die one day. 🙁

The big lesson here is clear:

While you can do so in a calm, focused manner, get educated about your parents’ and anyone else’s will and related documents that involve you as soon as these documents come into existence. Then review them annually so that everything is refreshed in your mind. If you are to have some official capacity such as Attorney-in-Fact or Executor, understand fully what these designations mean. Create for yourself a “cheat sheet” of immediate actions you should at least consider taking when your powers are invoked. Then you won’t have to rely on your possibly impaired ability to think when the crisis is at hand.

Unless you’re a lot more cold-blooded than me (and I’m pretty cold-blooded), trying to get up to speed on estate documentation in circumstances like I encountered will be impossible. And you sure won’t need that additional stress at that time either. Make it as easy as possible on yourself and your family, and when it comes to estate management, adopt the Boy Scout motto: Be Prepared!

How About You?

Have you had experience as an Attorney-in-Fact or Executor? How’d it go? Or do you know someone still alive and well who has chosen you for such designations? Are you prepared to serve?

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