We received the phone call at 4:30 on Tuesday morning from my wife's sister in Ohio. The phone ringing so early in the morning is never a good sign. My wife and I had not been sleeping well the past few nights, knowing that her mother was under hospice care and was not doing well. After our call that same day with the hospice nurse, we had made plans to fly to Ohio for what may have been one last visit at the end of the week. With this call, we knew we were too late. My mother-in-law had died from advanced cancer after three years from diagnosis, but it was still difficult to prepare for how fast she went at the end.
I deal with the death of clients and their family members on a daily basis, but dealing with one of my own was much more difficult. We had so many moving parts to consider, so many things to think about. We immediately called my wife's other sister and told her the unfortunate news. We discussed funeral wishes, flight plans, meeting with the attorney, life insurance and much more. Who would do what and when? What paperwork did we have? When were we coming into town? Our minds swirled about the logistics and other matters.
This was the first death of a parent for either my wife or myself, so everything was hitting very close to home. The family was looking to me to help answer some questions, but there were some things out of my control and knowledge due to Ohio law, and there were some unknown financial matters as well. Going through this for the first time, I learned (or definitely had confirmed), the following:
- You can never be too prepared. This certainly sounds like a cliche, but it is true. I deal with the death of my clients all the time but the death of a close family member at the end of life still created a lot of unknowns that we had to figure out.
- Know the financials as well as you can. The family needs to know the decedent's income and assets as soon as they can, hopefully with a conversation before the decedent passes.
- Know the funeral wishes. Our knowing my mother-in-law's wishes was very important and we were thankful to have saved text messages as to her final wishes.
- Make sure you know the pre-paid funeral wishes and life insurance beneficiaries. This is very, very important to make claims on life insurance, which can sometimes be necessary to pay for the decedent's funeral.
- Family issues matter. Tensions can run high between family members when a parent dies. Having as much information as possible about the decedent's wishes will help cut the tension.
- Know the decedent's PIN to get into their phone. If the decedent was computer savvy, he or she may have bank information and the contact information for friends or family that you may want to contact.
- Locate the original estate planning documents. Time has a way with making us all forget about the decedent's will or trust, as well as incapacity documents.
- Follow Up with the Insurance Companies. We sent in the paperwork to claim the life insurance but had not heard back in over a month. When we called, they said the copy of the death certificate was illegible and they stopped moving forward on this. Obviously, we should have called earlier but I thought the insurance company would have reached out if they had a problem with the claims process.
I also learned that no matter the preparation, unknown things will come up, so keeping the line of communication among all family members will be important.
For planning with clients of our law firm, we provide a questionnaire to our clients that covers much of these issues. We have a handout on funeral wishes, e-mail passwords, location of important paperwork and more. These will hopefully make things easier for our clients' families upon the death of their loved one.