When my mother collapsed and then slowly died over a two-week period in early November 2022, I knew very little about what to do or in what order to do them, and I quickly realized many of my assumptions -- about her health status, about preparations for such an unhappy event, about even the process of planning a funeral -- were wrong or warped. And while the internet provided some general guidance, it was haphazard and often too high-level to be of much use. “What to do when your parent goes into a coma” and “how to plan for your parent’s death” were poignant but somewhat useless, because each state was subtly different in such matters, and I was in shock. I needed marching orders, not gauzy advice.
Over those weeks and after, I took tons of notes, and I post it here — maybe it will help someone else navigate this bizarre and byzantine process.
My mother lived and died in central Arkansas, so some of my experience was specific to that location. But much of her own preplanning was wonderful and would work for any state; much of what she failed to do taught me lessons that I offer, should someone be desperately searching the internet for “what to do when your mother dies without a will or warning.”
It seemed tragic and wrong that in the end, her life was boiled down to paperwork and preparations, both those she made and missed. But that’s exactly all it was, to anyone not family or friends: just forms and documents (or not) and dates and numbers. A checklist to help you avoid some of the pitfalls is at the end of this post.
- Dying sucks -- especially as a single parent.
My parents were long divorced, and my mother did not remarry. So when she fainted and lapsed into a coma in Arkansas — I live in Texas — I was immediately reliant on my very-not-reliable younger brother who still lived near her, to be the hospital go-between representative. Eventually I used her previously executed Power of Attorney to establish better communications on her health status and financial matters, but it took me several days to get that act together; more on that below.
Had my mother remarried, her spouse would have been the person to deal with hard decisions and transfer or hold any assets. (This is largely the point of martial law in the United States, especially for the elderly: to ensure that the lived legalities of a deceased spouse transfer to a surviving spouse. But when there is no surviving spouse? Any children get pinned with those difficult choices and try to sort out what exactly were the day-to-day operations of the parent’s house and life. This was a puzzle I never wanted to solve.)
If you have a single aging parent, it is critical to draft at the least a power of attorney (there are various versions, preferably “durable” is best, but at least “financial”) while your parent is in good health, mentally clear, and alive. A Power of Attorney (POA) is no longer valid the moment the parent dies.
A will is also incredibly important, and it’s not enough to have your parent tell you they have one. Insist on seeing it; preferably, get a copy and keep it someplace fire-protected (a firesafe, a bank deposit box, or your freezer in a pinch). Because …
- Dying without a will (also called “dying intestate”) sucks even more.
My mother said she had a will. But she didn’t.
When your ill/incapacitated parent is still alive, a Power of Attorney (POA) allows you to stand in that parent’s shoes and operate as if you were them, to shut off her insanely expensive cable bill, or find homes for her three dogs. Once your parent dies, however, that POA is worthless.
POA’s are only for the LIVING; wills are for the dead. And dying without a will meant everything without a superseding, named beneficiary — like on a life insurance policy or a retirement account — immediately became the property of the state. Every estate goes through probate, even those with a will, but the will determines where things go. If there's no will, the government/court/state decides that. So the name of the planning game is "KEEP AS MUCH OUT OF THE ESTATE AS POSSIBLE" and "have a will to say what goes to whom."
- Dying without enough health (or life) insurance makes everything worse.
My mother was on Medicare. She was 75 and retired, but she did have one additional health insurance policy — a Supplemental Medicare policy that she paid $170 for every month.
As of November 2022 when she died, she had one of the better ones, which paid most of her medical bills — BUT NOT ALL. There were still residual balances — deductibles not fully met, charges that were more than what was contracted for with Medicare, etc. — for which collectors wanted to be paid. You can ask the doctors and hospital to forgive those unpaid balances, but if the remaining balance is high, those unpaid balances will become liens on any assets in the estate.
This supplemental policy, also known as “Medigap coverage” (and there are multiple kinds … which are confusing and beyond the scope of my situation, because she already purchased a policy) meant that most of her end-of-life care was paid by the supplement. Otherwise, I would have been fighting with a hospital about a $218,000 bill. I recommend investigating Medigap options at https://www.medicare.gov/health-drug-plans/medigap). Do not assume that Medicare will cover much or be of much use to you or your parent should extreme medical care arise. I made that assumption, and I was very, very wrong.
My mother also did not maintain life insurance. She’d had policies at one point but had cashed them in or let them lapse, and so she had only whatever cash she had on the day she died, and that was it — to pay the dozens of niggling fees that cropped up. Like sales tax on some of the things she’d bought in her funeral package. (This topic especially enraged me. More in 4. below.)
When none of her antidepressant pills were found in any of her bottles at home, we all discussed the possibility that she’d taken them all on purpose or mistakenly taken them all too fast for too-few days. If she had done it intentionally as a suicidal act, she had purchased her life insurance many years prior; most policies won’t pay on suicide within two years of a policy purchase. Some rarer policies do have clauses that hamper paying benefits if a death was self-inflicted. It’s worth it to locate any parental life insurance policies and confirm what the clause and disallowances are, if any.
- Dying without pre-arranging your funeral plans might be one of the meanest things you can do to those you leave behind.
After her own mother’s death and funeral, my mother went back to the funeral home, to choose the details for her own funeral — which urn or coffin she wanted, what kind of service (in the chapel, only grave-side, with a funeral home officiant or not, etc.), and most critically — she bought a “burial" insurance policy. I did not know this kind of thing existed! It paid for the price increases between what she prepaid and the increased costs of those things after years had passed.
What it did not pay was sales tax on the smallest of things: her urn, the box they burned her corpse in, and other unbelievably petty things. I had to pay that balance myself, as it was not covered by the burial insurance policy she purchased — bizarrely.
Another eyebrow-raising glitch from the funeral home was their lack of help to sell her no-longer-needed cemetery plot (she decided at some point she wanted to be cremated and paid for that in her package). They told me to “list it on Facebook Marketplace or sellmyspace.com" — I am not joking -- and with the ding for sales tax on her urn and such ... it seemed indecent then and still does. I still have not tried to sell the cemetery plot. The funeral home folks are right there, all day, every day, right next to the plot, and I’m 611.2 miles away, but for some reason I have to sell the plot myself. (Trafficking in the bodies and business of the dead left me disgusted with the entire industry, but that’s for another blog entry.)
- Dying without designating beneficiaries is definitely one of the meanest things you can do to your loved ones.
My mother filled out the beneficiary forms on her two small retirement accounts; this bypassed the estate and state probate as well. This was both one less thing for me to wrestle with, and it ensured that her hard-earned money didn’t go to the state to pay administration and probate fees.
My mother owned a paid-for Kia Sol. But she had not listed a death transfer or given joint title ownership to anyone, so no one owned her car if she died. And then she did die, and the car was an “orphaned asset.” Since it was an older, low-value vehicle, it did not push her combined assets value to an official estate (in Arkansas, estates valued under $100k are considered not worth the judge’s time to probate, and they are just auto-probated without a court appearance … but probate and estate laws vary by state and by amount! Plus, I got conflicting advice from two different estate attorneys). With her house jointly deeded to my brother, there was no house to probate, so her "estate" was under that small estate threshold.
- Dying in debt is crummy, but ….
My mother owed almost $10,000 on five different credit cards, and she still owed money on her tiny house. I think she was using her credit cards to live, to fill in the gaps for things her social security did not cover: vet bills for her dogs, replacing her air conditioner. Those unsecured creditors all looked to file liens on anything she owned.
Since Arkansas law was so confusing on small estate probate (and I got conflicting advice from two different Arkansas attorneys), I filed probate on her vehicle only, because she hadn’t death-transferred it, and it had no loan on it. Almost immediately the credit card companies circled like proverbial sharks hunting chum, using my contact info from those court documents to stalk me. They were all very careful to tell me they couldn’t force me to pay her debts, but that did not stop them from near-harassment-levels of contact. Eventually I concluded that probate was mostly intended for higher value assets like real estate in Arkansas, and so there was no reason for me to have filed probate at all. When the Arkansas court clerk handed me the probate papers, she'd said, “Take this to the DMV,” thinking I would use the documents to tag the vehicle in my name, I guess. But as a resident of Texas, I had no plans to do that. Her car remained in storage in Arkansas for months.
One of her five credit card accounts had a “payment insurance” policy, and that meant I didn’t have to “negotiate to settle” on this account. It just paid itself off. But the other four balances did not, and so I was contacted repeatedly for months by creditors wanting to be paid the moment her end-of-life expenses were complete. Things like funeral costs and and remaining healthcare bills had to be paid before unsecured debt would paid from any decedent’s assets. My mother owned so little, her cash was quickly gone, and so her creditors got nothing. But that didn’t stop them from calling me and sending me letters for months.
Had she put payment policies on each credit card account, for pennies on the dollar of what she owed, I would not have been stalked. Had she left even a single small life insurance policy to pay off her debt, I would not have been stalked. Had she put a TOD name on her auto title, I would not have had to file probate at all.
Every time I got a call or an email or a letter about any of this, it ripped open all my grief and anger, over and over. I would not wish this experience on anyone. And yet almost all of us will go through it, when a last parent dies, or when those of us with children die and leave our kids to deal with the aftermath.
Here is my strong, insistent advice, a checklist from the last 10 months of my life that was lost in the sinkhole of my mother's death.
First Things First
BEFORE THEY GET SICK
- GET A POWER OF ATTORNEY BEFORE YOUR PARENT IS SICK or demented. Keep a notarized copy or original if you are the person named on the POA.
- Insist on a copy of any will. Do not take no for an answer! Some states don't require much for a will; just being named executor/executrix can make your life a lot easier if you are the one to handle everything post death.
- Be sure you know your parent's social security number and their date of birth.
- Have your parent use a Password Vault or manager, like BitWarden or 1Password, etc. that you can access, too. Or dump all their passwords from their browser to a hard copy printout, that you keep securely locked away, and know that as they add accounts or change passwords, your list will be out of sync. At the very least, you will need access to their mobile phone and/or email account, for password resets.
- Have your parent name beneficiaries for all assets, and jointly title any vehicles.
- Houses can be deeded to living relatives (my mother quitclaimed her house to her son, but this was dangerous — had this deed happened too close to her death, her creditors could have challenged the quitclaim and my brother lost the house. Luckily, she did that in 2014 and died in 2022).
- She should have filed a right of survivorship warranty deed instead, based on "joint tenancy," but that was more expensive and more complicated. Not every state does joint tenancy, and if your parent adds anyone other than a spouse as a joint tenant of a property after its purchase, then it may be treated as a gift. If so, half the value of the home would be treated as a gift, and any amount exceeding the gift tax exemption might be taxed. As always, these complicated situations may require the expensive assistance of professional like tax accountants or estate attorneys.
Proceed with caution; many attorneys or tax CPAs will consult with you for a free first chat, to determine the scope of any estate, and many questions can be answered in that free session.
AFTER THEY GET SICK
- Use a spiral notebook to take notes about all of it: the conversations with doctors, with the nurses, with the credit card companies, the utility companies, the funeral home, Social Security ... all if it. Then it will always be in one place, and the act of moving a pen or pencil helps the mind remember, and it helps ease some of the tension as it's happening.
- Immediately put in a mail forward, temporary or permanent, so your parent's mail will come to your house. You can always cancel it if needed, but do this right away.
- Locate their internet passwords!
- Use a (durable) Power of Attorney (POA) while your parent is alive to ensure:
- Beneficiaries are listed on every bank, investment, and retirement account.
- Review the last 3-6 months of bank account transactions, so you know what was being routinely paid for and when, from which credit cards to utility amounts. Better: dump a year's transactions to Excel so you can quickly search and sort it offline.
- CREDIT CARDS: cash out any accumulated rewards and stop paying them. BEST: Establish/arrange a payment policy for each account to pay off its balance in the event of death; sometimes this can be done online with a few clicks. It will depend on how much your parent owes and what the bank’s details/requirements are.
- If you think you have time, complete TOD (Transfer on Death) requests for any real estate (house) and vehicles; death transfer filings keep these out of any probate proceeding! (Check your state's requirements, as they do vary significantly from state to state.)
- A TOD can happen timely on vehicles. Real estate is a much harder deal and may be challenged by creditors if your parent dies too soon after a TOD deed is filed.
- Sell any vehicles. If your parent’s prognosis is poor, and there is no TOD (Transfer on Death) name on the title, consider selling vehicles immediately — especially ones that are paid for/have no loans against them. (Vehicles with loans on them will likely be repossessed once the loan is not serviced.)
- "Pause" your parent’s house: confirm auto payment of mortgage and utilities, but winterize or summerize the house if no one will be in it. Change the thermostat to an unoccupied temperature. Cancel subscriptions that will not be used (cable, newspaper, magazine, box stores like Costco, gym online media like Netflix, Disney, or Amazon) and consider halting vehicle insurance, vision/dental, and any other repeating expenses that only an ambulatory, competent adult would need. Throw out produce or fridge contents that will spoil quickly.
- Remember! Once your parent dies, the POA will no longer be of use.
- FIND THEIR WILL!
- And find any life insurance policies.
IF/AFTER THEY DIE
- Notify the Social Security office immediately about the death. Even if the funeral home says they will, do it yourself, too. (My mother’s funeral home said they would and then didn’t, and it caused multiple months’ delay in turning off the monthly SSA deposits, all of which had to be returned to the government!)
- There are SSA rules about which payments remain in a recipient's account and which are retracted. Monthly Social Security deposits are for the previous month. Any month’s payment -- when your parent is not still alive on the last day of the month -- will be forfeited. See https://www.usa.gov/social-security-report-a-death for more details.
- For example, my mother collapsed in early November and died November 17. A SS deposit was made on November 13, while she was in the hospital but before she died. That November 13th deposit was for October and remained in her account.
- The November payment was not deposited until until the following month, on December 13.
- Since my mother did not live for the entire month of November, the November payment deposited on December 13 was forfeited.
- It also took the Social Security Administration almost two months to not her death in their records, because the funeral home failed to notify them of her death. The SSA didn’t know until I called them and sat on hold for two hours.
- Other payments occurred while I waited for the SSA to retract forfeited monies. Eventually they did automatically deduct out all payments that had been made after her death.
- Contact your local Social Security office, ideally, or call the SSA's main number at 1-800-772-1213 (TTY 1-800-325-0778) — be prepared for endless waits, e.g., more than an hour on hold or waiting in line.
- Find your parent's wallet and keys to secure/retain their identification, plus any important cards like insurance coverage cards, credit cards, etc.
- Do not give out your actual mobile number or regularly used email to everyone. I gave out an underused email address and my Google Voice number so that I would get emails about voice messages, and I could go about my usual days without being harassed until I was ready to listen to the messages and deal with the demands.
- Order and pay for death certificates; they will be needed to close accounts, initiate beneficiary settlement processes, and dispose of their assets.
- My mother’s funeral home put in a request for death certificates for me, from the Arkansas Department of Health. The first one cost $10; subsequent copies were $8. Costs of death certificate vary an astonishing amount; Alaska, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, and Utah all charge $30 or more for a death certificate! Many more charge $20-30 for one.
- I thought I would need more original copies than I did; most banks and vendors took emailed scans or made photocopies of a single original. Probably three copies would have been more than sufficient — unless your parent has many assets of various kinds (houses, investments, vehicles, etc.).
- I had to pay for these copies up front, and it can take weeks to receive these death certs; in Arkansas, it was stated to take 7-14 business days, but actually took longer than that.
Wrapping up a life is a slow, laborious, and dreadful process.
Second Things Second
Generally, there were some things I decided to do (or not). These are the top ones from my experience:
- Talk to an estate/probate attorney, or maybe more than one. You can usually have a first consult for free.
- Go to the bank branch your parent used the most, and meet with an onsite manager. My mother's was closest to her job (when she was still working); yours might have used one closer to home or the grocery store.
Refunds of all kinds may process for 9-12 months after the date of death. For months afterward, I was forwarded escrow refunds, class action lawsuit payouts, utility refunds, etc. in the mail. If I had closed her checking account, I would have been unable to do anything with these monies. Since I kept it open for almost a year after she died, and because I had a relationship with someone in the branch, I was able to mail checks to them for deposit, and they helped me close it over the phone, since I lived out of state.
- Much advice exists about filing a last tax return. I did not, because I was couldn't confidently prepare an accurate return: I wasn't sure of all income she received, and what I did know about was only Social Security, which neither the Feds nor the state of Arkansas taxed.
Turns out there were many other kinds of insurance — not just the well-known “life” policy — that my mother purchased that were hugely beneficial and not particularly expensive:
- Medicare Supplemental (a MUST!)
- Burial (a MUST!)
- Credit card balance pay off (really really helpful if at all possible)
To confirm if your parent had any life insurance policies, contact the NAIC (National Association of Insurance Commissioners) for a free policy search.
My mother, despite her health challenges, mental health damage, and rapidly-increasing dementia, did a number of things right, and I am so grateful she did them:
- She prepared and prepaid her own funeral, with a price protection insurance policy. I cannot imagine what it would have been like to organize that surreal and horrible experience in the few days I was able to fly into town the week she died. Plus, figure out a way to pay for a many-thousands-of-dollars cremation and service. She saved me that, and I will always be grateful.
- She purchased a Medigap/Medicare Supplemental insurance policy.
- She put my name on her checking account (specifically as right of survivorship: “right of survivorship” on a bank account bypasses the estate, so that when the primary holder of the account passes away, the named individual retains full ownership over all of the funds the account). That means the STATE didn’t get it, and I could immediately write checks on her behalf using her money (while it lasted).
- She prepared a Durable Power of Attorney. And she prepared a Living Will/Do Not Resuscitate. The pricelessness of aPOA was already mentioned; the Living Will and DNR were equally important. These documents allowed me to prevent the hospital from keeping her alive in a vegetative state for months or years. It was a horrible experience, but I was relieved to know her wishes, and having it in writing meant I could do what she wanted done, when no one else would turn off the machines.
- She named beneficiaries on any asset accounts, like IRA, retirement, investment, other. This bypassed any estate and the state did not get it; her beneficiaries did.
- She put, on at least one credit card, a Payment Protection Policy. I wish she had done all of them; this would have saved the revolting “death circling” of lenders who wanted payoffs on unpaid credit card balances.
- She printed out a list/log of passwords on her dot-matrix printer. Not the most secure thing to have done, but a lifesaver for me when I was trying to turn off or on auto payments, or check her social security details, or watch/review her bank balance. BETTER: if she had used a digital password vault/manager, like 1Password or BitWarden.
- She packed up jewelry she wanted people to have in labeled envelopes and left them in her fire safe.
What she could have done but didn’t:
- In Arkansas, her living will would have been more effective if she had written additional details in her own handwriting. As it was, she only initialed and signed, and this made for a less than vigorous endorsement on terminating her life support.
- In Arkansas, she could have hand-written a will on notebook paper, just generally stating who would be the executor and a few high level “leave this to that person” notes. With two witnesses and a notary public, it would have been as official as any will could have been in the state. With such a will, the executor would have been empowered to make decisions about paying final bills, interact with creditors in an official way, and generally be better-treated than I was as a daughter with no legal standing for anything my mother left behind. Sadly, she owned so little of any value that the state didn’t want to bother with her orphaned vehicle or her costume jewelry or furniture.
- She could have put family heirlooms like photo albums or her wedding dress or my grandmother’s afghan somewhere that cigarette smoke wouldn’t ruin them. Some things just do not survive decades of smoke and ash. I still don't know how to salvage those.
Leaving those -- who will be left anyway, when we die -- prepared to just mourn might be the single most loving thing a person can do for their loved ones. There were countless other details I had to sort out, and I couldn't have gotten to them as well as I did if my mother had not done a lot of the work herself. These were just a few of the decisions that needed discussion, logistics, and attention. I was dealing with those as well:
- Who will conduct the service. What will they say, what will they be paid.
- When will the service be held to ensure those who most want to attend can do so.
- Will there be an after-funeral gathering, and if so, how many should it host, how much will it cost, can mourners get to it easily.
- There were other legal documents I'd hoped to have and didn't: like Disposition of Remains/Authorization to Autopsy. I couldn't manage any of that because she had no spouse, and I wasn't allowed to without documents authorizing me to do so. Like a will, I knew she'd known about those documents, and I assumed she'd completed them, and that I would find them in her fire safe. But they were not there.
When it was all over, I created a FUNERAL folder in my own fire safe, to hold copies of insurance policies, wills, medical directives, funeral plan documents, etc. in it. And we paid a small retainer to an estate attorney and put her contact info in the fire safe, too.
If you are here, reading this because any of this applies to you, I am sorry for your loss.