Distant Uncle died and we have questions....
January 8, 2019 9:12 AM   Subscribe

My father's younger brother died and we had lost touch with him completely. His Landlady sent a letter to my mom whose address she found on a Christmas card when cleaning out his apartment. We have some questions....

From the landlady, we know that his lifelong partner died five years previously. My uncle had a roommate when he died. No kids. The Landlandy seemed to be pretty friendly with my Uncle and had a phone call with my mom in which she told her that he had no will and no money and had to send the funeral home away when they called to ask for payment. We find this a little strange and I'm wondering how or if we can get any answers.

He lived in Washington state when he died, as he did his whole life, though in a few different towns, possibly never owning a home. He worked at a major Washington aircraft manufacturer during his entire professional career.

First off, we are trying to figure out if he did indeed have a will. Secondly, we don't know where he was buried or if he was cremated or anything. My mother would like to find a home for his ashes if he was cremated. There was a family burial plot with his father already buried there. But we also don't know where his partner was buried or cremated or anything. If he can be laid to rest next to his life partner, I think that would be ideal.

He died in October of last year, so less than 3 months ago. We've ordered a death certificate. I think my mom feels guilty that she and my Dad were not able to maintain contact with him. However, once my Dad, his brother, died, he pretty much ceased all contact with us. I'd like to help her get some answers and see if we can do anything right by him or his estate. How to start? None of us live in his state but in adjacent states.
posted by amanda to Grab Bag (11 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I would contact the HR department of that major aircraft manufacturer once you have a death certificate. He might have a life insurance policy, pension, or 401k.
posted by crazycanuck at 9:29 AM on January 8 [5 favorites]

You can follow the trail started by the landlady. When she (presumably) found your great uncle, she must have called someone. Start with them and follow the trail to whomever disposed of his body and ask them what became of it (though if it's the funeral home that called the landlady, they might want some money before they give out that information).

You might also ask the landlady and room-mate who else, if anyone, they contacted after his death. If your mom was the only one, you should start probate. But be warned that this too might run into money, especially if he had no assets.
posted by ubiquity at 9:35 AM on January 8 [1 favorite]

So having gone through a recent death in our family, there are a few really important things we learned:

1) People who happened to be nearby at the time of death are not going to be the platonic ideal of what everyone wishes they would have been. When folks say “there was no will”, what they often mean was “there was no Clearly Labeled Death File, containing a will.” If your uncles personal effects are still there, you can take a look through them and I can help suggest ways to find stuff - if not, you will have to track things down yourself without the benefit of paper. A will may be filed with the county if your uncle was particularly meticulous. It is best to act as though there isn’t one. Most folks are messy about this.

2) On a related note, people who aren’t the executor often don’t do executor level things. There may be social security death benefits to be filed, pension, bank accounts that need to be closed out. If you have no paperwork, update and I can give specific advice on how we found this.

3) What probably happened is that the body was sent to a local funeral home, which cremated the body because keeping bodies intact is very expensive, and since no one paid the funeral home, they probably still have the ashes. Funeral homes are pretty good about demanding money up front.
posted by corb at 10:06 AM on January 8 [7 favorites]

I don't know if Washington State has a program like this, but when my dad died in New York, we were able to get the cost of cremation covered by filing a form attesting to his poverty. They may have contacted a funeral director who did something like that or the county may have handled it directly. If your other leads don't pan out, you could contact the county where he died and see if they have a program like that and if they are able to help you locate his remains.

This is hard. I'll be thinking of you all.
posted by kate blank at 11:10 AM on January 8

The Landlandy seemed to be pretty friendly with my Uncle and had a phone call with my mom in which she told her that he had no will and no money and had to send the funeral home away when they called to ask for payment.

So perhaps I’m overly suspicious, but this is making my spidey sense tingle. Are you sure that everything represented by the landlady is true? How would she know if he had a will? Does she have his stuff? Why would the funeral home call her? Beware later requests from her for money to either reimburse her for, say, storing his stuff or back rent, or to cover funeral home related expenses.
posted by carmicha at 11:50 AM on January 8 [6 favorites]

Contact the Medical Examiner's office of the county in which he resided. The remains of people who have died and are unclaimed almost always end up there. The ME's office usually makes a determined effort to locate next of kin, because if they can't find any, they/their budget will be on the hook for the cremation or burial.

The ME's office is either still holding your uncle's remains, or they can tell you who agreed to take responsibility for making the arrangements. There's a possibility that if the ME couldn't find any relatives, they permitted a non-relative to take charge. They'll let you know.

There's a small chance the landlady or roommate went ahead and made arrangements directly with a funeral home, but frankly, most funeral homes won't go ahead with that unless/until they have some form of documentation proving the person is authorized to make those arrangements, and once again that's where the ME's office can provide some CYA (as well as a payment for the interment if the deceased had no funds for it).

As mentioned upthread, I'd also contact his former employer. There's usually life insurance and possibly other cash benefits available, and they'll most likely also have his bank account information. You will probably be asked to provide documentation proving your relationship.
posted by Lunaloon at 12:03 PM on January 8

The police department gets called to all deaths that don't occur in medical facilities. Using his address, you can find the local jurisdiction. Contact them and get the police report, the medical examiner will also have details for you and your family.
posted by jennstra at 12:37 PM on January 8 [1 favorite]

Some background that may aid your search: Best place to start is with the local government office that certifies death. Upthread, this is referred to correctly as a Medical Examiner. BUT, smaller counties in Washington State won't have a medical examiner. In that case, they use the office of Coroner, which has identical powers. In the smallest counties of Washington state, there is no coroner or ME, and instead the county's Prosecuting Attorney discharges those duties. You'll want to see what county his final address was in and contact that corresponding official-- this is literally their job and they handling calls like this is something they do every day.
posted by seasparrow at 6:48 PM on January 8

Thanks for all the ideas, very helpful and I've started following up on your suggestions. The death certificate was sent to me and so now I have the hospital where he died, possibly under hospice care? And I have the funeral home where his body was presumably sent. I am a little scared to call the funeral home in case I get roped into some angry debt dispute so thinking through how to approach that. Someone advised me to contact a probate attorney in his city and I've reached out to folks I know that live in Washington for recommendations but no one has gotten back to me (not sure if the attorney must be in the city where he died). If I contact a probate attorney, I'm wondering if they can contact the funeral home on our behalf? I don't know anything about probate attorneys! The county is Pierce county.
posted by amanda at 9:35 AM on January 9 [1 favorite]

Update: After speaking with my mom, she seemed to think that the landlady had paid a fee to the funeral home. So, I went ahead and contacted the funeral home and they have his ashes! The fee is around $650 to claim them. I suppose I should ask for an itemized bill or something. His birthday is coming up, maybe we can get his ashes by then. My mom also seems to think that his partner was cremated (several years ago) and ashes were scattered. (She seems to remember new details about this landlady conversation every time I talk to her.) Maybe my Uncle could be scattered in the same location? But that's more details to figure out. Thanks again!
posted by amanda at 1:30 PM on January 9 [2 favorites]

Just an update for anyone interested... I’ve been in touch with the landlady and she seems like a really nice kind of busybody landlady who talks to everyone. Since my uncle was elderly and didn’t drive, he was around a lot and would watch her cat when she was out of town. She is bringing me his ashes and a box of things this week but most importantly she is helping us figure out where his partner might have been interred or ashes scattered. She may have a sibling contact for his partner who can help with this. Fingers crossed. There does not appear to be any will. And he lived very simply with no real estate, vehicle or accounts. He lived off a sizable pension and his social security. He did not have a computer or smart phone. I’m so happy that we are pulling these strings together and my family is luckily in agreement that we should try to get his final resting near his life partner if at all possible.
posted by amanda at 9:41 AM on January 29 [1 favorite]

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