Mother dying -- please help me get stuff together.
November 10, 2016 5:30 AM   Subscribe

My mother is in the hospital and unlikely to make it. I need to go back to the US and tie up everything. Help me make a checklist -- I have no one I can ask in the US for help. Have been googling, but don't want to miss anything. (I saw the list on the AARP website, but the stuff about wills and financial planners doesn't apply.)

Cast of characters:

Me: From North Carolina, living in Europe with European husband.

Husband and in-laws: Will provide support but very unlikely to be able to go back to the US with me.

Father: Was in the military, died in December 2014 of cancer. Before that, he was disabled for three years. Mother collects some sort of pension (for lack of a better word) thing from his death. I don't know much about this.

Mother (61): Had a new-ish car, possibly behind on payments. Very likely behind on rent and all other utilities. Retired early about six months ago. Very poor finances, zero savings, little to no retirement fund. Said she had a life insurance thing for $25K for me, but I don't know anything about it. Had a part time job at a small clothing store, but retired from a larger company. No will.

Maternal Grandmother (82): Has dementia, narcissistic, and unlikely to be helpful.

Mother's half sister (67): Unlikely to be helpful for various reasons, but may be meddlesome and persistent.

US-Based Friend (34): Unemployed. Can provide emotional support and help me clear through the house, possibly.

Mother's friend Jennifer (50s): May be able to help me sift through stuff and support. The problem: I haven't spoken to her since 2007 and don't know how to contact her. The positive is that she's probably easy to find because her last name is rare. She also drives.

Church: My mother was extremely active in a local church. Although the average age there is probably 80, they may be able to provide some support. The church secretary is especially good, I think.

Siblings: None.



1. I don't drive nor have a car, and this is an area where people depend on cars.

2. I haven't lived in the US since 2007 and spent most of my adult working life in the UK, so when it comes to how things are done, I feel lost.

3. My mother took care of all of my father's arrangements -- I missed his funeral for various reasons, mostly financial, so I'm not sure what she did.

4. Family has always been poor with very little savings. I also have very little money.

5. I have no one to consult for advice or depend on. We have no family lawyer, planner, accountant, or those other things. US-Based friend, Jennifer, and Church may be able to provide some limited support but nothing financial.

6. What should I do about getting a temporary telephone number in the US? I use a sim-free iPhone 5s from the UK.

I need to:

1. Get rid of my mother's car -- I think it's a 2013 or 2014 Nissan, but I've never seen it. I can't drive and I live in the UK anyway. I'd like to give it to my US-Based friend if she wants it or my mother's friend Jennifer. Alternatively, if neither of them want it, sell it.

2. Pay up bills she was behind on, and close all accounts including a bank accounts, credit cards, cell phone, utilities, and internet. She may have also been using my father's name on some things, but I can get his death certificate, I think.

3. Clear the entire apartment, which is mostly clothes, but some newish furniture.

4. Contact the vet office to see about that pension. (I have my father's social security number.)

5. Inform people about her death. Maybe contact her Alumni association at her high school, plus her old job. Also, put it in the local newspaper.

6. Get rid of a whole house worth of stuff, including my items (video games, books, a few clothing pieces I'd like to keep).

7. Pay for a funeral.

8. Other things that I don't know about. (Should I also try to do something with Dementia Grandmother?)

If there's someone I can hire to help me or something, this would be great. (Even people to help me clear out and organize all the stuff, because I have no idea how one goes about throwing away furniture in the US.) I don't have a budget yet, but I'm sure it'll be extremely limited.

The area is Guilford County (North Carolina) if it helps.

My job such that I don't really do a lot of work in December, so I don't have to worry about taking time off that month. However, ideally I'd like to get this done within 2-3 weeks max -- I'd love to be back in the UK by the end of December.

Throwaway e-mail: -- will check this one for a while.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I'm sorry for this.
Sell the car. If it is that new it is probably worth over $10k if not more.
posted by k8t at 5:49 AM on November 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

If you can't sell the car and it's too much trouble, frankly, let the bank take it. It's in her name only, I assume, and if that is the case, then literally you can just be like, nope, take the car (source: my mother the estate planner who advised me to never own a car jointly lest I get stuck with the payments).

Generally speaking if the church is full of old people they may have an estate planner or some other person they know or regularly call on that can assist you. If the secretary is good then contact her and see what she says. Similarly your mom's friend may have someone in mind who would be helpful. The hospital may also have resources for you. Because your mom may owe money and people may try to convince you that you have to pay it off - I would find a lawyer. You can find one through the NC Bar Association. This is to prevent you from being bullied into paying something you should not, or otherwise having to deal with people with whom you should not have to deal.
posted by Medieval Maven at 6:36 AM on November 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

From the OP:
My mother got out of surgery and is well now, so this is no longer an emergency, however this has made me realize that I still need to go back to the US *soon* to get a few things together and plan for her eventual death. I may also be able to ask my mother to do/provide certain things, depending on how she feels.

(In other words, it's not an emergency but I still need the comments -- my mother's financial situation won't change.)
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane (staff) at 6:51 AM on November 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

(saw your update: this is a good chance to talk with your mom about three basic things: healthcare proxy, power of attorney and having a will or at least final wishes. She could give a local friend some of these roles if she chooses which gets you off the hook)

I am sorry you are dealing with this stuff, that is stressful. Let's work on one thing at a time.

1. Track down some contact info for people likely to help and let them know what is up (church, Jennifer) and see if you can make a plan for a visit. If there is anyone who might know your mom's wishes for funeral type stuff or medical type stuff, it's a kindness to try to implement them. (on update: get these phone numbers)

2. Contact people who will need to know this sort of thing soonish (landlord) and explain the situation. You can also get info for life insurance and pension if you can do this remotely. Some of that stuff you may not be able to do unless you are the executor of her estate or have power of attorney. (on update: get these phone numbers for later)

3. Contact a local (to your mom) funeral director. If you need someone to talk you through this, MeMail MeFi's ColdChef (seriously, even if you do not know him) because he can help you figure out what to say and what you need to know. They can handle most funeral type stuff. (on update: contact ColdChef anyhow)

4. Once you have a plan to get to your mom's house (sorry, this is the part I can't help with) you have a few steps to take

- see if there is a "geriatric care manager" or something similar in the community. They help older people with late-in-life things but can also help younger people with determining what those things are
- grab paperwork in house to give you a rough idea of what bills need handling, they can wait, generally (on update: when your mom gets home have her make a list for you)
- For house stuff the default is 1-800-GOT-JUNK and they tend to handle this if you have some money, church should be able to help f you do not
- give the car back to the lenders if she owes on it "sorry, this is your car now"
- get a burner phone from a convenience store that is pay as you go. Many AskMes about how to do this

The most important thing is realizing that, should the shit hit the fan in the near future and you are handling thigns, you can decide how much to deal with other people's meddling. You can just stop taking their calls if they are obnoxious because you have an important job and are in a not-great place. Set yourself up with some positive self-talk about this. Your mother's half-sib may be terrible or she might turn out to be OK (my dad's sister was really surprisingly helpful when my dad suddenly died) but either way you can choose how much to let people meddle. Hope this is helpful for the future, glad things are OK now.
posted by jessamyn at 6:55 AM on November 10, 2016 [3 favorites]

It's going to cost a little bit of money, but since you live out of the country - I suggest hiring an estate attorney. If your mom happens to live in Michigan, I can get you in contact with one that is handling my Mom's estate. There are things that must be done, even if she has no assets.
posted by INFJ at 7:40 AM on November 10, 2016

I'm in Greensboro! I'm going to email your throwaway account.
posted by joycehealy at 8:21 AM on November 10, 2016

Glad your mom has recovered. When the time comes, do keep in mind that you, personally, are not legally liable for any of your mom's debts after her death. Only her estate is, and, to the extent the estate is insufficient to satisfy those debts, those creditors have no recourse. Many shady creditors will attempt to pressure any next-of-kin they can identify into reaching into their own pockets. Don't do it.
posted by praemunire at 8:25 AM on November 10, 2016 [2 favorites]

If your mother was active in the church, surely she has friends there who are much more aware of her day-to-day life and the accompanying details of her life.

Contact the pastor of the church and ask them if a member or two would be able to help you arrange for transportation while you are in the area. Ask for a volunteer or two to help in clearing the apartment. You might even consider donating the car to the church, of you might ask if someone can assist you in selling it (you might donate a percentage of the proceeds to the church in that case). Finally, you can ask them to take care of things like putting an ad in the paper and notifying the alumni association and any other groups that she was active in. The pastor will also likely have good leads on funeral homes in the area that the congregation typically works with.

Since your father was in the service, you might give a call to USAA to see if they can offer you any advice with regard to accounts that your family may hold with them.

As far as your grandmother is concerned, you have not been clear as to who is primarily responsible for her affairs. Where does she live? Is she in a nursing home? Who makes sure that her bills get paid? Will responsibility for Grandmother transfer to Mother's half-sister, or to some other Grandchild? If your mother was looking after her, and some family member asks "will you be taking care of Grandmother now?" your answer needs to be an emphatic No. You cannot appear to waffle on this point at all. You cannot effectively manage her affairs from the UK. People will be mad at you, sure, but reality is reality.
posted by vignettist at 8:37 AM on November 10, 2016

Now, if you can, see if you can get some of her bank accounts changed to Joint Tenancy with Right of Survivorship. That way you'll have a joint account or two with which you can make payments from now, then when she does pass, you can keep on using it without it being closed. Makes final bills easier to manage.
When it happens, request several death certificates from the get go. You'll need them to close out stuff and to claim life insurance. I had to order more which made the bank closing/credit card stuff drag out.
posted by PJMoore at 9:00 AM on November 10, 2016

Ask a lawyer before creating joint accounts! In some circumstances it may cause you to become jointly liable for your mother's estate's debts.
posted by monotreme at 11:09 AM on November 10, 2016

I'm going through some of this now. Keep in mind that if the estate goes into probate there is a 4 month notice period. This means you cannot get title to house, car, bank accounts for 6-10 months. Some states have streamlined probate for small estates. If there is very little value in the estate or if debts are greater than assets, it is probably easier to walk away. They can't make you be the executor, let it be the creditors problem.

Don't pay her bills unless you can do it out of her funds. You are not liable for her bills! If her funds are tied up in probate, let the creditors wait.

Cremation is fairly cheap if you deal directly with a cremation service company, not with a funeral home.

FIND AN ESTATE ATTORNEY. Most of this is very complicated and unintuitive. Many attorneys will let you do some of the legwork and charge you less (might be difficult without a car). Try to find a way to get access to her money to pay bills.

Even if you could drive her car--after death the car insurance is probably void, and the insurance company won't issue a policy to someone who doesn't have an ownership interest in the vehicle. Probably best to let it be repossessed if that is an option.

If you can, try to get all titles on bank accounts, house, car, insurance, etc, changed to TOD (transfer on death).

posted by H21 at 12:54 PM on November 10, 2016

You might find the list of all checklists on the website to be useful.

You've gotten a lot of great advice above, so I will only add: good luck! This is a hard task, but any work you do now will be very helpful in the future.

Take care.
posted by wenestvedt at 1:04 PM on November 10, 2016

When my dad died and I needed to get rid of all the stuff in his house I called a thrift store. Two days later they sent three guys and a big truck. By the end of the day all the stuff had been cleared out.
posted by get off of my cloud at 2:44 PM on November 10, 2016

Definitely find an estate attorney/ lawyer - I know nothing of US tax law but here in NZ there are some kinds of paperwork an accountant would rather NOT see - apparently some types of tax due payments can die with the payee but an inheritor can 'wake' them up again - You really want to avoid that.

Also here in NZ if you inherit and go to the house and find a firearm, if you are not licensed, you are now an unlicensed owner of a firearm - go figure.

Put a plan in place for sorting stuff now - my father had lots of junk and after a decade of hassle from me phoned me and said "I've sorted it" - when I took over I had NINE banana boxes of stuff that had been thrown in - took about 20 very stressful hours - what I wanted was half a winebox.

Take care and try to get some time out.
posted by unearthed at 12:08 AM on November 11, 2016

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