The Post-Death Family Drama I Didn’t See Coming

After a 7-year fight with lymphoma and dementia, my beloved grandmother passed away earlier this month. We had a special relationship; one more akin to a mother and daughter. She saw me through tough times during my upbringing and I saw her through tough times at the end of her life. The recency of her passing makes this a difficult topic, but while it’s fresh I want to capture what can happen in the immediate aftermath of a loved one’s death.

Perhaps naively, I had expected things to go relatively smoothly when she passed. I thought I had done most of my grieving already. We hadn’t been able to talk on the phone every day or go out to lunch or have a coherent conversation in years and I had slowly gotten accustomed to it. As her financial power of attorney, I had a good handle on her situation and thought she had prepared as much as anyone could to ensure her affairs would be handled in accordance with her wishes.

When her time eventually came, I found that only some of my expectations came to fruition. As hoped, her savings had provided for high-quality care throughout her lifetime. As planned, her estate documents and beneficiary designations were in order. As designed, the vast majority of her estate would sidestep the time, cost and publicity of probate.

Then there were the things I hadn’t seen coming. Even after a lot of thoughtful planning, issues cropped up that made the days following her passing more difficult than they needed to be. They were manageable, but certainly not easy. Maybe if my family more closely resembled the Cleavers, we could have navigated things better, but I imagine like many, I come from an imperfect lot of people who sometimes clash when forced to work together, especially in times of high emotion.

The first issue revealed itself a mere hour or two after she departed. While it was clear she had put an estate plan in place, we found there was no such plan for her funeral. Other than her final resting place, she hadn’t pre-paid any expenses or left any detailed instructions for her wishes. We were tasked with figuring out what she would have wanted and that’s when the trouble began.

After getting through the immediate task of choosing a funeral home, we needed to iron out the details of her funeral service. We couldn’t choose a date, submit an obituary or share travel details until we knew things like what church would conduct the funeral. My grandma had attended and volunteered at her church since 1964, so most of us agreed that it was clear where her service would be held. To my surprise and dismay, others in the family felt she would have preferred their home church, where they took her periodically during the latter stages of her dementia.

Fueled by the intense belief that we had to get this decision right, both sides vehemently claimed to be the authority on what her preference would have been. In the absence of any direction, none of us could be sure. We eventually came to a decision but not without conflicting opinions, impassioned pleas, downright arguing and one part of the family feeling dissatisfied with the outcome.

It wouldn’t have taken a legal document to avoid these disputes. Had my grandma put together a simple document like this, we may have spent the days following her passing coming together as a family rather than coming at each other.

The next hurdle arose when it came time to pay for her final expenses. She had plenty of money left to pay for a service and burial. The issue wasn’t the existence of funds; it was their accessibility. When she died, my authority as power of attorney ended, so I couldn’t withdraw funds like I could before. No one could transact in the accounts until they were transferred to her heirs, which couldn’t be done without a death certificate. Though it would only take a couple weeks to get, the wait left us without funds exactly when we needed them.

Fortunately, we had the means to cover over $10,000 of expenses and await reimbursement. It could have been quite difficult to have her laid to rest in a timely manner had her survivors not been willing or able to do that. To avoid such a predicament, my grandma could have either pre-paid all her funeral expenses or opened a small joint checking account with someone in the family.

Had she and I opened and funded a jointly-owned checking account that allowed either of us to transact independently, I could have accessed the funds in the days immediately following her passing. It’s not a foolproof solution, since as an independent owner, I could have used the funds for anything I wanted at any time before or after her death. I would have only endorsed this idea if she kept the balance in the account relatively low (enough to pay final expenses), opened it with a trusted and responsible co-owner and made her wishes for the account explicitly clear.

The final hurdle in her passing may have been the biggest surprise. Though I thought I had grieved already, my grandma’s passing left me in a dense emotional fog. I felt dazed and unable to handle details and decisions like I usually could. I have often preached the value of estate planning, but it was in the moments of immediate grief that I understood what a gift it was that she had made so many decisions for us while she was alive. Had she not, the struggle over the funeral may have only been a preview of the family strife to come.

Even after she’s gone my grandma is still finding ways to teach me things. Perhaps, her final lesson: while we can’t cope in advance to eliminate the pain of losing someone, there are certainly things we can do in advance to spare our loved ones some grief.

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