Death and Paperwork

D

On a recent morning we had a conference – Zoom, of course – with the lawyer who will be updating and revising our wills and powers of attorney. The originals were drawn up in 1997 and, as we discovered in the course of our conversation, there have been changes in the law as well as in our thinking about the contents of the will.

It turns out that in the eyes of the state, dying is a complicated and potentially costly affair. I got a preview of that several years ago when my brother-in-law died (as they say in the obits, my sister had preceded him in death) and I discovered that I was his executor. I must have agreed to that role at some point in the distant past when his and my sister’s deaths were an unreal shadow on the horizon. The problem was that I was in Chicago and the legal machinery through which this process had to pass was in New York. Their two sons, my nephews, agreed to find a local lawyer through whom I could execute my responsibilities.

The word estate conjures up images of a manor house, surrounded by green rolling hills populated by flocks of sheep. In this case it consisted of a house in Queens, a modest investment portfolio, some bank accounts and a car. Still the process dragged on for the better part of a year. The details are hazy now, but the work involved the seemingly endless paperwork of getting the will probated. Thank goodness that there was a clear will and two undisputed and uncontentious heirs. I have no horror stories to report. The lawyer was an honest junior member of a small law firm on the main street in my nephews’ neighborhood whose offices we must have passed dozens of times in our visits to their house over the years. My wife’s brother, a lawyer himself who had been the executor for the estates of several family members, confirmed that the fees the firm was charging were reasonable, so there was little drama.

It was, however, a real grind, requiring a robust set of executive function skills, both on my part and, obviously, on the part of the lawyer. My nephews were grateful to a degree not commensurate with what my duties took out of me. To this day, we receive gift packets of fruits, cakes and nuts for every Jewish holiday on the calendar.

We had a lawyer friend in Houston whose practice consisted entirely of processing wills and estates. (She seemed destined for the work; her last name is Wils.) We asked her once whether she found the work boring since so much of it consists of compiling boiler plate documents that fit most conventional situations. On the contrary! she said. So many clients present situations that require the skills of a family therapist: conflicts between/among siblings; families with divorces that produced stepchildren. Often, she said, it seemed like the division of the estate was not about the distribution of wealth but the competition about who was most loved by the departed parent(s).

In Rosellen’s and my family we have instances of bitter divisions around inheritance that in some cases created permanent rifts. Rosellen never met one of her father’s brothers and his family because of some dispute about what appeared to be unequal shares assigned to his brothers. The dispute between my father and his siblings caused less permanent damage but it did create some lingering resentments which surfaced when other conflicts erupted. Keep in mind that both these inheritance disputes involved laughingly small sums, in my father’s case less than a thousand dollars. That seems to support our lawyer friend’s contention that the underlying issues were not money but parental love and pre-existing animosities among the parties involved.

Fortunately, the tendency toward combat over inheritances does not seem to have passed down to subsequent generations in our family. The only dispute between me and my late sister involved each of us pleading with the other to please please take some of my parents’ furniture or kitchenware. My sister was a reluctant winner in that battle because she wound up with a great deal of excess furniture in some of her rooms while I, living in another part of the country, was not in a position to take any. The dealings among Rosellen and her brothers was equally uneventful, leaving no wounds on the family body.

The same absence of contentiousness seems to prevail between our daughters. There was a potential source of conflict between them because of a proposal to deviate slightly from a 50/50 split of whatever will be left of our assets, but one conversation was all it took to close the issue. At that point, my younger daughter remarked, “I’m so glad I live in a boring family,” to which I say Amen!

The best news that came from the meeting with our lawyer was that because our will is set up as a trust, we will be able to bypass the probate paperwork that bedeviled me when I dealt with my brother-in-law’s estate. Although Rosellen’s brother is still listed as our executor, he will be relieved to know that bypassing probate puts him in a primarily ceremonial position.

One of our all-time favorite books is Material World: A Global Family Portrait, published in 1995. It consists of stunning photographs of families from many countries posing in front of their dwellings surrounded by all their worldly possessions. For some that consists of nothing more than their cooking utensils and blankets. The US family is virtually lost in a lawn covered with mounds of possessions, only a few of which can be defined as necessities. Add to their collection a sky-high stack of books, cartons of papers and you have us.

Where did all these objects and this wealth that must be managed and dispersed to our heirs come from?!  When we moved from San Francisco to Boston six months after we were married, everything we owned fit in and atop our small Chevy Corvair. Our bank assets were several steps below modest. No life decision we made was calculated to acquire and accumulate wealth. Even the most ubiquitous wealth generator, home ownership, didn’t happen for us until we were in our mid-50s. Yes, we worked hard and made some wise decisions, but what we have today has privilege written all over it.

Yet, now it’s here and we must be wise stewards with plans to protect it and distribute it wisely and fairly. That must be done in a way that enables our family to remain intact and at peace with one another. Families are fragile creatures, as our own histories testify, and no earthly possession should be the instrument that tears them asunder.

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Marv Hoffman

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