I thought my mom had done all the right estate planning before she died, but I missed some important things

I thought my mom had done all the right estate planning before she died, but I missed some important things
BETH PINSKER

When I started the caretaking journey with my mother after she had back surgery last fall, I did research, talked to experts and, most of all, lived through it. I thought it would be useful to pass along some of what I learned to others. The whole time, I was anxious that a point would come where that would get too sad and serious. That is now.

When my mom handed over the financial reins to me, we thought that was a temporary situation, but things took a turn for the worse faster than we expected and my mom passed away recently.

Everyone thinks they’ll have more time, which is why that’s such a cliché. Every financial planning element we set in place turned out to be essential to making this time easier for me and my family. My mom had all the proper power of attorney forms and healthcare proxies, a will, a trust and beneficiaries on the important accounts. She had cheat sheets prepared for me with crucial information – including her cemetery plot information and the number of the funeral home to call.

But there are still so many things we forgot to do.

Nobody’s perfect. But if I could have just a little more time, this is what I’d wish I’d been able to ask her before it was too late:

Where is your second storage locker?

My mom lived in a condo building, and I knew where her storage locker was and where she kept the key. Turns out, she had two. Maybe three. By the time we figured that out, my mom couldn’t answer verbally, so it turned into a true treasure hunt, with clues, maps, secret keys and all. At one point, I asked my mom to squeeze my hand if she had a second storage locker. She did. I asked her if it was on the lobby level. No squeeze. Basement. Nope. Sub-basement? Yes.

Some heirs also come across storage locker keys when they are going through a loved one’s effects after a death, and have to go searching for the unit all over town, so I’m lucky this was confined to just the many storage rooms scattered throughout the parking garage. We also had the foresight to deal with her safe-deposit box before her death. I used the power of attorney documents to gain access when she was in the hospital, then emptied and closed it out when my mom came home for hospice. Most people forget about that one and get stuck needing a probate court order to open the box, which takes months and lawyer fees.

Some of the reason for our confusion was that my mom’s building had just changed management teams, and they didn’t have any record of a second locker, let alone a third, which the former manager we tracked down had a vague memory of her renting from another resident off the books.

So we started to look in each storage room, peeking into the wire cages to see if we could identify my mom’s stuff. In an unmarked file on a local drive on a computer in the management office, they located a second locker, on the lobby level, and I went down with a huge ring of keys from my mom’s desk. All I found was leftover floor tile from a renovation, an old mirror and some other junk, while the first locker just had beach toys and empty plastic storage bins. The treasure we were seeking was my grandmother’s paintings, which I bet are still in some unmarked cubby in the sub-basement, just where my mom indicated.

What happened to your tennis bracelet?

Some people may be better at keeping track of the family jewels than I am and have this one nailed down. But this whole area eluded me, maybe because in our family, my grandmother kept the good stuff locked away in a safe-deposit box, and then my mom did too after she inherited it all. When I looked through the loot, I couldn’t remember having seen any of the pieces before and could only guess at their significance as family heirlooms.

Then the existential crisis set in: What’s the point of having nice things if they are locked away in a box and nobody ever sees them or enjoys them? My grandparents passed valuable items down to my mother, and she was trying to preserve them for me and my children. But in hiding them away, we lost the emotional connection to them.

This happened with so much of my mother’s stuff, and as we clean out her apartment, we don’t know the story behind much of it. I meant to record her narrating each item, but we ran out of time. Is that Biblical-looking stone tablet on the shelf from our trip to Israel, or is it from Home Goods? Are any of the silver plates in the china cabinet from our relatives who immigrated from Eastern Europe? Could the tea set on the hall table really be an antique worth hundreds of dollars? And what the heck is the deal with the ugly carved dragon chair that used to be in my grandparents’ foyer?

Most of all, what happened to the tennis bracelet that my dad gave my mom at some point (nobody could remember exactly when)? When somebody mentioned it because it wasn’t in the stash, I remembered something about it being lost – and a sore subject. So I started to look through photos on my phone, and I found my mom wearing it circa 2006, but by 2008, it was gone. Did she file an insurance claim? Would we find it somewhere in the apartment when we moved furniture? It’s still a mystery.

What else am I missing?

You hear about people finding lost life insurance policies for deceased relatives and other unclaimed funds all the time. I recently filed claims for two old accounts of my own that came up when I did a search of my state’s database, and ended up getting checks for $300. My mom did not leave a complete inventory of all her accounts and insurance policies, but she left a pretty good paper trail that has been intuitive to follow. I needed to find her birth certificate, for instance, and it was right in a file marked “important papers” where you’d expect it to be, with her original Social Security card (and my father’s, my brother’s and mine, too).

I was able to easily make a claim for her life insurance, which had beneficiaries named properly. I went through her wallet and found all her current credit cards. Nothing surprising turned up on her credit report. So most of what I have to do to settle her estate is methodically go through all her accounts and close them one by one.

But I don’t know what I don’t know. The best advice I’ve heard is to monitor a deceased person’s mail for a year to see what notices and bills turn up. Other than that, we just have to keep digging through her papers and seeing what we can learn.

More from Beth Pinsker

  • https://www.msn.com/en-sg/money/personalfinance/i-thought-my-mom-had-done-all-the-right-estate-planning-before-she-died-but-i-missed-some-important-things/ar-AA1ek4rj

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