“I Never Saw it Coming!”

A client of mine knew he faced a hellacious task ahead of him — cleaning out the parental home of lifelong collectors.  Some people call it collecting; others like myself call it pseudo-hoarding.  After an initial consultation, and explaining the process of disassembling the estate, he was completely on-board with emptying the house.  I promised I could undo 40 years of heavy “collecting” in 56 hours.

He assured me the family had already chosen the items they wanted to keep, and we even gave his sibling a few extra days to go through it.  My instructions were clear; please make your selections and remove the items because once I am in the home, it would be best to remain away until our work is done.  The client was very understanding of this and we scheduled the work.

On a personal level, I know it can be emotionally draining to go through this process of sorting through and selecting items from mom and dad’s home, who are now deceased.  I have always believed this is part of the grieving process.  But there is a fine line where it can quickly turn to hoarding, and it becomes clear a child can’t let go for numerous reasons.  I have long preached that memories are not found in things, but in the precious relationships we build along the way.  Sadly, most people do not get this concept.

Long story short, one sibling could not stay away from the home, and could not stop filling their vehicle each day.  Things were missing that were slated for auction; so much that we had to all but cancel the auctioneer!  My client was most baffled by his sibling’s actions.  “I don’t understand why they are doing this!  I have been very clear with them to stay away, and they assured me they didn’t want much.  I don’t get it.  I NEVER saw this coming!  Why are they doing this?”

The explanation was simple:  She could not properly digest that mom and dad were gone, and as a close second to having them there (which is no longer possible), she took their possessions.  I also see many children who never made amends or rectified any pending issues prior to a parent passing away.  This leaves a tremendous weight on their shoulders that they don’t know how to deal with.  The problem now became that this sibling took so much, there was no room in their own home to enjoy.  Don’t look now, but they just continued the pattern of being a heavy collector, I mean … hoarder.

It is easy for me to critique what I see because I am on the outside looking in.  I know the sibling who took so much will be miserable with all this stuff.  They won’t be able to move around their own house, which forces them to make decisions to let go of some items when they are not thinking clearly, probably causing marital strife also.

Bottom line: Just when you think you can predict a family member’s actions, you can’t!  We all handle infirmity, death, and grief differently.  In this case, there was one sibling who was in serious emotional turmoil and could benefit from grief counseling — and I mean that most sincerely, as it helped me greatly.

©2013 The Estate Lady®

Skeletons in the Closet

We all have them.  Some of them are small and insignificant, and others are whoppers.  But whatever one is in your closet, remember one very important thing:  One day, we too will perish, and we don’t want our loved ones pained further by any skeletons they may find in our closets.  What’s the solution?  Deal with them, get rid of them if they are physical items, talk openly about them so no one is shocked or hurt.  Just get that monkey off your back and let it go.

It’s always amazing what we find in estates.  Some families try to clean them out, but soon lose steam and call us in to handle it.  Some families don’t even want to tackle the job to begin with and hire us from the start.  We find evidence of alternate lifestyles, illegitimate children from decades ago, infidelity, disorders, reasons for a suicide, pornography addiction, etc.

These are incredibly personal issues that belong to the individuals.  They have to be handled with grace and compassion, but often the shock they bring leaves families in a downward spiral.  For whatever reason, through their own choices or fate, these skeletons were left behind, and I have seen some of these skeletons bring about much pain for survivors.

Each of us has a life to live however we choose.  But take a good look at your home and your life and do a clean sweep to make sure there is nothing left behind that could be potentially harmful or hurtful.

When we find sensitive “skeletons,” depending on what they are, some just need to find their way to the garbage, and demand discretion.  Some need never be talked about and taken to the grave.  This issue is among the many gray areas we deal with in handling estates.  One thing is clear: all of these that we mentioned here require kindness, compassion, and potentially, discretion.  Remember, we can’t judge until we’ve walked a mile in their shoes; it’s how we handle them that makes or breaks the situation, or us.

© 2012 Julie Hall

I’m Seeing a Paradigm Shift

Lately, I have had an influx of calls that are resembling a pattern.  Boomer children are coming to grips with the financial hardship of long-term care for our elderly parents — and it comes at a high price.  We are living longer, but not necessarily healthier.

It used to be these boomers, of which I am one of them, called me to come out and appraise a few items or advise them on the best way to dissolve their estate.  Today, the phone calls have shifted to something a little more alarming.  “We need you to come out and advise us what these items will bring in today’s market.  Mom is in assisted living/nursing home and we have to sell everything to keep up with her care.  We even have to sell the family silver and heirlooms.”

These distress calls for help are a sign of the times.  It’s part poor economy, part living longer, and part not planning or saving as well as we could have or should have during our lives.  But even that last statement has multiple causes … I know many people who worked hard their entire lives, or were quite affluent, only to lose it in the stock market, ending up in possible foreclosure or financial ruin.

Sometimes it’s as simple as going through all the money the parent had, and now the children are doing their best to keep the parents’ care going; that includes selling what the children thought were valuable heirlooms.  Sometimes they do have value and sometimes they don’t, but the wrong time to sell is when the market is soft.

We need to learn from these hardships which are taking so much out on the children.  All of them thought it wouldn’t happen to them, but it did and it can.

I see a common denominator:  We are buying too much stuff we don’t need.  Shopping compulsions abound for men and for women.  At the end of the day, we are surrounded by piles of stuff and little money for our future.

MORAL TO THE STORY:  The frugal survive and thrive.  A little less HSN and QVC and a little more money saved for a rainy day.  This won’t solve all our problems, but it will build our confidence that we are doing all we can for an uncertain future, especially in healthcare costs.

© 2012 Julie Hall

The Secret Keeper

My father used to play a game with me as a small child.  When he wanted to know what mom had bought for his birthday or Christmas, he would say, “Julie will tell me what mom bought.  I can always get it out of Julie!”  I had been sworn to secrecy by my brother because I was the little tattletale in the family.  But no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t keep that secret.  Little did I know that as an adult, life would ask me to not only keep them, but to take them to my grave so no one would get hurt.  This story, I can share…

Steven was only 43 years old.  He was top executive, divorced with children, and lived as a bachelor in a very nice home with lovely furnishings.  Steven had a good life and all that he could want or need: a stable line of work, choice real estate, comfortable lifestyle, children, etc.  But something went very wrong along the way.

One night, for no known reason to his family or friends, Steven ended his life.  There was no note found or any indication for the reasoning behind his actions.  We were brought in to sell and clear out the home completely.

During the clearing out phase, I personally found a stack of letters that were found in a closet.  They were in no particular order and wide open.  Many of them were notes and cards obviously exchanged between sweethearts.  Unsure whether to dispose of these or not because the significant other might want them, I opened up the top card only to reveal words that might have offered a reason why he ended his life.  I felt an overwhelming responsibility to do the right thing, but what was the right thing in this case?

There were two choices: I could dispose of the items and keep this secret locked away in my head forever, or I could call the family and somehow search for the right words to explain my findings in a very delicate manner.  Having no previous experience with this particular scenario of suicide, I sat in silence contemplating the situation that had been laid upon my lap.  I had in my hands potential evidence as to why this distraught man ended his life, and my heart grew heavy with the emotions he must have been experiencing.  When my hands held his handwritten note, I could feel he was completely shattered.

After what seemed like an eternity of contemplation, I knew exactly what I had to do.  The family had the right, no matter how painful, to know something as serious as this; I had to give them the opportunity to make the choice themselves.  Calling the closest relative from my cell phone, I wanted to sound calm and reassuring.

When the relative picked up the phone, I greeted the relative and explained that I was still in the home working.  “I’ve found a letter I think you may want to see, but I need your permission to send it to you.  I believe it could offer you an answer as to the reason Steven is no longer with us.  Would you like me to FedEx it out to you?”  Much to my surprise, the family rejected my offer to send it to them and did not want to know the reasons behind his actions.  Some things are just too painful.  His words are forever etched in my mind to be buried with me later in life, unknown to anyone who loved him.

© 2011 Julie Hall

She Just Didn’t “Get It”

Though my efforts were admirable, my client simply did not want to hear the values I placed on her “heirlooms.”  I was there in her lovely, traditional home getting paid handsomely for a couple of hours of my time to offer her an opinion of value, but I am not certain she heard what I had to say.  As with all of my clients, I have a way of being succinct and direct, yet kind and compassionate.  I offer guidance they can trust and direction based on the market and where it is headed.  It is not always an easy combination to attain.

In her home, all things were phenomenally valuable according to her.  She had, after all, done her research.  Her figurines were worth far more than ever recorded, and simple ceramics or collectibles were off the charts.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know these figures just aren’t applicable, especially now.  I tried to bring her down to a realistic place and questioned where she got these “values.”  Some came from research a dozen years ago when the market was strong, and others were on very high retail sites.  These are not viable sales comps.

This is the new reality.  It is worth what someone is willing to give you for it, and in this economy if the offer is fair, take it.  Just know what you have first.

When researching prices on the internet, compare apples to apples and not just asking prices on retail sites.  Find out what the items are actually selling for.

A rude awakening, perhaps, but gone are the days of spending wildly — at least for the next few years.

© 2011 Julie Hall

A Change in Your Health Can Mean a Change in Your Will

An estimated 50% of us have a will or trust!  This is not good news!

Most people have not yet comprehended (or accepted) that dying without a will is a very costly mistake that will negatively impact all you leave behind.  It’s not just about the hassles and frustrations your heirs will go through potentially for years, but the expenses involved.  Ultimately, the state you live in will make decisions regarding your estate that will not distribute it the way you would have chosen.  In a nutshell, get it done now and leave a legacy of respect, instead of resentment.

For those who do have a will, it is important to consider any changes in mental and physical health, as these could greatly impact the outcome of someone’s wishes.  For example, let’s say mom’s healthcare power of attorney states that dad makes all decisions for mom in the event she is incapacitated, vegetative state, etc.  Suddenly dad is exhibiting odd behavior and is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, which is progressing rapidly.  Can he now make sound decisions for mom?  Or, mom may not think about these details and this is the time for the children to talk with her about it.

So many Boomer children don’t know how to talk with their parents about these delicate issues, so permit me to offer some very sound advice.  It has to be done; it has to be discussed, as painful as it is.  If left “under the carpet,” no answers will be available to you should they become infirm or die.  Get the answers now, and do so with love and compassion.

Here’s one example: “Mom, we were thinking about yours and dad’s situation.  Now that dad is showing a decline in health, new decisions have to be made and documented so your wishes are fulfilled the way you would like them to be.  Dad is no longer capable of understanding complex issues, and you will need to choose a new healthcare power of attorney, so we can ensure the correct decisions will be made.  Can you please give this some thought?  Can we make an appointment with your attorney to have this changed soon?

This one example really gets you thinking.  Anytime there is a significant change in your life or a parent’s life, consider discussing ith an elder law or estate planning attorney.  Being proactive isn’t always easy or pleasant, but it can head off gut-wrenching issues that will occur at some point, especially if you have elderly loved ones.  Making sound decisions in the midst of crisis is not the optimal time to think clearly.

Lead with love, and start communicating while you can!

© 2011 Julie Hall

6 Big Mistakes People Make with Personal Property

Personal property and heirlooms — we spend a lifetime accumulating them, inheriting them, caring for them, collecting them, and talking about them.  But we rarely know the values and we rarely make a plan for what happens to our personal property.

Here’s my list of the biggest mistakes.  Hopefully, you don’t see yourself in this list.

1.  Parents don’t share final wishes with their children.  They don’t share vital documents, especially the will/trust, or at least tell the children where they are located.

Children are then left to guess the parent’s wishes, which is a very bad thing.  Children live with guilt for the remainder of their lives, wondering if their “guess” was what mom and dad would have wanted.  What a heavy load to carry!

2.  Parents don’t make a plan for personal property.  They don’t create a master list, or ask what the heirs would like to have.  They definitely don’t gift any of their possessions while they are still alive.

3.  Parents know that death and infirmity will certainly come, but they do nothing to anticipate or minimize fighting after they are gone.

4.  Children have opposite opinions because the parents didn’t tell their wishes to the children.  This starts fights and feuds that can last for the remainder of their lives.

5.  Children are hasty with parents’ possessions.  Heirlooms with significant value can end up in a dumpster or yard sale.  They decline to hire a professional to ascertain what’s valuable before distribution and disposal.

6.  Chilren have a tendency to give away, throw away, or donate before they know the worth of those items.  Be leary of unscrupulous people who ask for a “memento” and go for the most valuable item, which you may or may not have valuated.

Did you see yourself in this list?  If so, now is the time to take action and resolve these issues.  As I’ve said before, you don’t want to become one of The Estate Lady’s sad stories!

© 2010 Julie Hall

Grief Needs a Shoulder to Lean On

Let me offer some compassionate support for those who are going through grief over the loss of a parent.  Having to handle all the details of a funeral and the liquidation of your parents’ estate ranks high on the lists of stressors that can wreak havoc emotionally.

You and your siblings really need a lot of shoulders to lean on during this time.  This is the time to make withdrawals from your emotional bank accounts of close friends.  If you are active in a church or synagogue, let your pastor or rabbi know what you’re going through, and be open to any acts of kindness from your congregation.

Grief can bring with it the symptoms of clinical depression, yet you’ll feel as if you have to be the strong one for the sake of your family.  It’s not a sign of weakness to meet with a counselor and unload what’s happening during this stressful time. 

With nearly every client, I’ve found myself holding the hand of an angry, heartbroken, grieving son or daughter.  Many are in a very vulnerable state, feeling angry and lashing out because of all the decisions that their parents did not take care of while they were alive.  Then their anger turns to guilt because their parents are no longer here, and they feel guilty because they feel angry.

You really do have to be strong and think straight as you go through your parents’ home for the last time, so take advantage of resources — personal and professional — that can help you cope with the sadness and stress.

Keep in mind: you don’t have to go through this alone.  There is reliable and trustworthy help that can make this painful experience go smoothly.

© 2010 Julie Hall

The Simple Process of Preparing a Will

I want to follow up last week’s true story about Carolyn with some simple information about why you need a will.  I know what you are thinking right now … “I’m young and in perfect health; why do I need to rush and prepare a will?”  No one is guaranteed the length of their days on earth; accidents and illness can come suddenly.  A will is necessary even if you feel you have nothing of value.  You probably have sentimental items that you wish to give to specific heirs.

Preparing a will is a fairly simple process that doesn’t have to be any more complicated or time-consuming than going out to lunch with a friend.

A last will and testament is a legal document that gives clear instructions about what to do with your property after your death and how death taxes, if any, are to be paid, along with final expenses that would include any debt and administrative costs.  It states who is to receive the property and in what amounts. 

A will may also be used to name a guardian for any minor children or to create a trust to handle an estate inheritance to protect spendthrift children or others.  Finally, and this is important in the case of your parents, a will can be used to name a personal representative or executor to handle property and affairs from the time of death until an estate is settled.

You do not have to hire an attorney to make out a will, though I highly recommend it.  The law is multifaceted, and all kinds of scenarios can erupt.  Depending on the complexity of the will, it will initially cost  a few hundred dollars to have an attorney explain your options and then draw up the document. 

But what Carolyn had written on notebook paper in her own handwriting could have served as a legal will if it were witnessed and notarized … and found.  When you consider the years and tears that your heirs and family will endure if you pass away without a  will, a few hundred dollars and a legal will becomes the most loving investment you can make in family harmony and peace.

© 2010 Julie Hall

Are You Ready?

Carolyn was 96 years old and had a lovely three bedroom home filled with antiques passed down from previous generations.  It was obvious that Carolyn and her predecessors had taken great pride in these heirlooms because they were in immaculate condition.  She had done everything right: she left all items in their original condition, she knew the history and stories that went with each piece, and she kept them out of direct sunlight and away from the heat vents.

I met Carolyn six months prior to her passing.  Her 2 children were present, and everyone wanted to know the values of Carolyn’s possessions from her mother’s and grandmother’s estates dating back to the 1850s.  Earlier, the children had spoken with me privately and told me their mother had not prepared a will and asked me to impress upon her the importance of doing so. 

As I examined each piece, I spoke with Carolyn about the importance of making out a will so she could determine what would happen to all of these valuable antiques, but Carolyn was adamant.  “I don’t need a will.  I’ve written on a piece of notebook paper my wishes for my children, and that’s good enough.  If it isn’t, then they can just fight over it.”  And so they would.  The children looked at me and grimaced.  They knew the complications that awaited them if their mother didn’t draft a legal will: potential years of red tape with hefty attorney fees.

Carolyn eventually passed away peacefully, but there was little peace for the family.  No one ever found the handwritten note, so it became a game of “Mom said I could have this,” and “No, she promised that to me.”  Sadly, it was years before the estate was settled, and no one was happy with the outcome.

I wish this story was the exception, but in my experience, it is the norm.  According to a Harris Interactive study, 55 percent of Americans have not bothered to see an attorney to prepare a will.  Have you???

How different would Carolyn’s passing have been for her family with a little more preparation and a visit to an attorney to make everything official!

© 2010 Julie Hall