Thursday, January 20, 2011

When Someone Dies

Death is Inevitable.  When someone dies, however, there are a host of tasks you have to take on.

When someone dies, it can be a very difficult time emotionally.  Compounding this are a whole host of clerical and legal tasks you have to take on, if you are a loved one, spouse, or child.

Trying to itemize all the things you need to do here would be an enormous task.  All I can recommend is that you get advice from your legal counsel, or check out your local library, as people have written volumes of books about this sort of thing.

If your spouse or partner dies, you can be expected to perform a number of complex tasks, at a time when your emotional state is anything but rational.  It is a shame, but some people, funeral directors in particular, do take advantage of people in this emotional state, and then rip them off for huge sums of money.

It pays to be prepared and understand what it is your loved one would have wanted.  And in fact, each of you should write down a set of instructions as to what you want done in terms of a funeral.  It is comforting to the survivor, and eliminates any doubt.

When a loved one dies, usually someone has to pronounce them dead and issue a death certificate.  This could the a doctor at a hospital, or someone at the morgue.  You will need many, many original certified copies of this death certificate, so be sure to ask for them initially.  In many States, you can order these at the time of death and have them in a short period of time.  Otherwise, you have to wait for them to be recorded at the County Records Office and then order copies from the microfilm, which can take months.

Why do you need so many copies of the Death Certificate?  You might not.  But if you have joint checking accounts, own property jointly, or the decedent has a 401(k), IRA, or other accounts naming a beneficiary, you will need an individual certified copy of the Death Certificate for each account.

For properties that you two held in Joint Tenancy with Right of Survivorship (which is the default for married couples), the account, house, car, or whatever, can be transferred directly to your name alone, without any need for probate, a will, or whatever.  All you need, though, is a certified original copy of that Death Certificate - one for each account.

Again, many folks are agitating for "Gay Marriage" in this country, while at the same time not taking advantage of Joint Tenancy With Right of Survivorship (JTWROS) in their homes, cars, and bank accounts.   And this is a shame, too, as holding property in JTWROS is far safer and easier to deal with than a Will.  A Will can be contested, but it is very hard to break  JTWROS, as, in effect, you already own the property in question.

So count up the number of accounts, cars, real estate, and other things that you will need a Death Certificate for, and then get a few extra just in case.  Again, most people are so overwhelmed at this time, they don't think of such things.

With regard to funeral arrangements, as I noted, many funeral homes and directors will use your emotional state to fleece you - or get you to spend more than you intended to.  You just lost someone you loved, and they make it seem like spending a lot of money on a funeral is one way for you to show how much you loved them.

But here's the deal, at least from my perspective:  Funerals are creepy and weird, and in the USA are rarely a chance to really release emotion, experience any feeling of closure, or really even comfort the next of kin.  Many times, they are stilted and awkward and viewed more as an obligation than a celebration of life.  I've been to funerals where the funeral director gives the eulogy - without having known the person who died!

And to me, spending thousands of dollars for a casket (or worse yet, a vault) so my rotting corpse will rot slightly less slowly, makes no sense at all.  Burn me up and toss away the ashes.  The corpus is not me, just a shell I rode around in.

But of course, that is just my perspective.  Other people may feel differently.  But funerals really need to be overhauled, in my opinion.  Like Thanksgiving, they are boring.  They need a water slide or fireworks.  A brass band, or disco music.  Less black and grey and weeping and more celebration.  Heck, people would actually show up for parties like that.

The next step of course, is harder.  The funeral flowers have all wilted, and all the guests have left.  You've written thank-you notes for all the cards and flowers you've received, and returned all the empty casserole dishes to the helpful neighbors.  What now?  What do you do with the rest of your life?

This is where a lot of people simply fall apart.  And in many cases, often one spouse dies right after the other.  We have talked about this a lot, and we don't view the survivor as the "lucky" one - having to go on, missing a limb, or half your brain, will not be fun for either of us.

Some folks, and in some traditions, a widow or widower wears black for years and spends the rest of their life living it as a tribute to their lost loved one.  I am not sure this is a good idea.  Staying in the same house, sleeping in the same bed, eating in the same kitchen - it would be so sad, I think.  And yet many people choose this.

Frankly, I think a better option is to downsize.  If there are only two of you, rattling around in an old house by yourself is certainly no fun.  Just keeping up with the cleaning and maintenance will be a chore.  And you may find your income decreased after a loved one dies, particularly if survivor's benefits, pension, or social security are reduced.

It is a good time to sell off some things, downsize, and move on.  Keeping two cars, for example, really makes no sense. Keeping your spouse's old clothes in the closet really makes no sense.   Staying in a large, expensive home, really makes no sense.

And yet, many folks feel "guilty" by trying something new - after all, they don't want to "desecrate" the memory of their loved one.  But if someone really loves you, they don't want you sitting around moping for the rest of your life, or living your life as a memorial to them.

Yes, I know this all sounds morbid.  But we only have so much time on this planet, and death is not some far-off possibility, but an inevitable certainty.  It pays to discuss with your spouse these issues and plan ahead.  You don't need to make detailed plans, necessarily, but you should at least be prepared when the inevitable happens.  Because the inevitable will happen.