Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Handling my mother's estate and what I learned from it

My precious mama's hand in mine,
shortly before her death.
I just finished administering my mother's estate. It was a simple estate, as estates go, and yet it still took about 5 months. Still, many times it takes years, so it was quick.

I have never been anybody's executor before. It was a chance to serve Mom one last time, even though she is not here any longer. It was a chance to serve my brother and sister also. They live far away, and it made sense for me to be the one to assist in this way, and it was my honor to do so. I'm also a control freak and probably would have driven my brother or sister crazy had one of them taken on the task! It was a lot of work, but I learned a lot from the experience, and I'd like to share what I learned for those of you who are in a similar situation, or may find yourself there someday.

1. It's easier if the decedent and executor reside in the same state. 
We had moved Mama from her home in Minnesota first to Wisconsin for a couple of months, then as she declined further, to a nursing home in Lansing, Iowa, where I could be close for visits. So her legal residence was Iowa at the time of her death, as is mine. Being a resident of the same state (and indeed the same county) made things easier from the start. One set of state laws to obey, one court system to navigate.

2. If there is any real property, try to sell it while the owner is still living.
As Power of Attorney (POA), you are sworn to act in the best interests of the person, not yourself. If it's your parent, you have the additional responsibility of treating your parent with loving respect, and if she says she is sure she will be going home very soon and you know she won't, it may feel very weird to go ahead and take the steps of selling her house or her car, but truly it is in her best interests to do so. Our mom had agreed to sell her house when she made the initial move to Wisconsin, to an assisted living apartment, but with mental decline, she forgot that decision, and talked often of going home. It was quite clear to all of us that she would never be safe on her own again. We did sell her house, and then her car, and set aside the funds for her living expenses in the nursing home. We did not do it to make things simpler when she died, but that's how it ended up. I'll explain that in #4.

3. Part of the liquid funds should be stored in bank accounts with a "payable on death" clause.
After my dad's death, Mom started to update the beneficiaries on her retirement accounts and insurance, but did not get very far with it. I helped her as her POA. While I was looking into this, I learned that bank accounts, too, can have beneficiaries if they are set up as "payable on death." We consolidated Mom's accounts from about six banks (as a Depression kid, Mom liked to spread her money around to different banks, because you just never knew) to one national bank with branches all over the country and electronic billpay. While we were at it, we made the savings account payable on death, with the three of us kids the beneficiaries. The benefit here was, soon after Mom's death when we received the death certificate in the mail, we were each able to go to a local branch of her nationwide bank and receive the funds from the split of that bank account immediately, without it having to go through probate. This account was really the bulk of Mom's assets.

Since then, Barry and I have set our savings account up this way, so that when the time comes, our three kids can have the funds from that account well before the estate is settled.

4. Look into "small estate" laws. If the estate qualifies, this is hugely preferable to full probate.
I learned that many states, Iowa included, allow very small estates not to go through probate. Iowa's limit is $25,000 at this writing, as long as there is no real property. This turned out to be another blessing of having sold Mom's house before she died: No real property. And since all but a little of her other assets were either in retirement funds or the payable on death bank account, her remaining funds were very small - enough to bury her, set her gravestone, and pay the last of her bills. Well under the limit for small estates. While there was still a need for some of the work of probating the estate, it was much simplified. And administering it as a small estate made possible #5:

5. Consider the crazy idea of - gasp - not using an attorney.
I have a bit of a queasy feeling recommending this, so I'll just say, it worked for us. I did a lot of reading. I read Internet articles, but I also read the actual Iowa state code on administering a small estate. I took good advice from my mother's banker, and I discovered a goldmine of information in the clerks of court at our county courthouse. They dispensed excellent guidance (as differentiated from legal advice) and pointed me in the right direction for my research, and helped me get back on track when I missed a step. They did this with kindness, compassion and patience. I was careful not to abuse them, and I hope no one else will do so either.

I also had an attorney in mind to step in if I got to the point where I needed help. I did not go into this with a plan that I would absolutely not use an attorney. I went into it planning to do as much as I could effectively do without one, but kept my options open. If your family is not getting along well, don't even try. If you are not communicating well, don't try. If there is any chance that anyone in the family will suspect you of wrongdoing in any way, don't try. In those cases the attorney fees would have been worthwhile. In our case, with the three of us talking daily (through a Facebook chat), with our loving spouses all giving us support and space to accomplish this, with the trust we had built over the past few years of looking after our parents together, and with the transparency upon which I insisted, i.e., overkilling them with information on what I was doing, we were all confident moving ahead with this. Families under stress act strangely. I thank God and my siblings, and their families, for how well we got through this together.

As for the actual paperwork to file, the Iowa state code told me a lot about when to file which document, and frequently what verbiage should be in the document. I tried to keep it simple. I formatted the documents in the way the court did, for the first document they sent me, and kept the naming convention the same throughout, always putting the case number in the file name. I skipped legalese and kept my language as straightforward and concrete as possible. Sometimes I found samples on line. (Remember that they are state specific.) I identified people any time I mentioned them for the first time in a document (the decedent, the personal representative). I think I filed at least one document I didn't really need to file, but that's okay. It was transparency, and it put everything I was doing on record in case it should ever be questioned.

6. Bite the bullet and get an estate TIN (taxpayer ID number).
I was well into things before I was asked for the estate TIN. I had not gotten one. I had been using Mom's social security number. But one of the retirement account companies wanted it. And then later that same day, another one wanted. It was sort of the Bader-Meinhof effect in action, I guess. Anyway, I groaned, whined, and finally bit the bullet. I applied for the TIN. Turns out it's a completely electronic process that took just a couple of minutes - and I had the TIN within a couple of hours. Shoulda done that from the start.

7. If possible, be an Iowan.
I would say this about so many things. I love Iowa! I'm not a native, but I am deeply attached to my adopted state, and this experience with administering my mother's estate just solidified that. The Iowa State court system is amazingly technologically advanced! I only actually set foot in the courthouse once, and that was at the very beginning, when I did not know how to start, and stopped in for a chat with the clerks of the court. Ever after that, everything was done electronically. The courts system has an excellently set up web site where we submit all paperwork and have all paperwork returned to us. The turnaround time is phenomenal! One petition I filed electronically on a Friday during the lunch hour was processed, accepted, and responded to within... get this... 20 minutes. I'm serious. If I had to drive to the courthouse and drop off paperwork, wait for the mail, wait for court dates, none of this would have been so slick. They were fabulous. I cannot speak highly enough of this system.

In conclusion, in retrospect, I put a lot of hours into this task, and had I had an attorney, I would have saved some time, but there was not a ton of money to speak of, and for us it was worth the effort to save the attorney fees. I had a strange feeling when I did the last task of the estate and was released from my duties. Relief, sadness, nostalgia. Thankfulness that I could do this for our family. Interest in blogging for the first time in months.