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Promises Kept

Ken Cutler

MY FATHER HAD FOUR brothers: Bob, Jack, Don and Dick. Born in 1918, Dad was the oldest. Bob was next, born the following year. Jack came along in 1922 and Don in 1926. Dick, born in 1931, brought up the rear.

I never met my Uncle Bob. By the time I was born, he and his wife lived more than 1,000 miles away, and my parents were never close to them. Uncle Don was my favorite. He was a labor attorney and lived with his wife—my Aunt Peg—in our state. He was laid back and had a good sense of humor. I always enjoyed his visits.

When I was a youngster, Don took pleasure in giving me career advice, always making sure my nose-to-the-grindstone dad was nearby. His advice: “Kenny, when you grow up, make sure you get a job that lets you sleep in to at least 10 o’ clock each morning.”

My dad would feign horror upon hearing his brother’s corrupting influence on me, and would say, “Now, stop putting ideas in his head, Don. I have enough trouble getting him to work as it is.” I would stand there grinning.

Uncle Jack and Uncle Dick both had what today might be called developmental disabilities. Jack was evaluated and found to be at the intellectual level of a 10-year-old, while Dick was stuck at a five-year-old level. Support for special needs students was almost nonexistent in those days, so neither got very far along in their education.

They weren’t institutionalized and continued to live with their parents into adulthood. For a number of years, Jack, who could be quite a comedian, held a part-time job at a dry-cleaning business. Dick, who had an agreeable personality—not unlike a kindergartener—was obsessed with stuffed animals and never worked.

My grandfather died when Jack was 26 and Dick was 17. After that, my two uncles lived with my grandmother. When she passed away in 1970, a trust—which had been set up for the benefit of Jack and Dick and which was funded by her estate—went into effect. Dick also benefited from another trust that was set up according to the estate of an aunt who had taken a special interest in him. My dad, with an accounting background, and Don, the attorney, were designated as trustees.

Jack and Dick stayed in their childhood home, which was only about a mile from our house. Dad, living so close, took the more active role in their care. Once a week or so, he’d take Jack and Dick to the grocery store, and would also address any other issues that would come up, such as house repairs.

Overall, my uncles were fairly low maintenance. There was a rough patch in 1987 when my parents retired to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, not far from where I lived. Because Dad would no longer be nearby to take care of his brothers’ needs, he and Don sold the family homestead in New Jersey and moved Jack and Dick to a nice facility in Lancaster.

Don died in 1988 at 62, leaving my father as the sole trustee. In 1999, Jack passed away, so only Dick needed to be cared for. Not long after that, my dad’s prostate cancer took a turn for the worse. By summer 2001, it was clear that it was only a matter of months before he would pass away. By then, Dick was happily living nearby in a group home. He enjoyed going to the local senior center each day and was constantly charming little old ladies into giving him stuffed animals to add to his massive collection.

My Uncle Bob—the one who lived more than 1,000 miles away—wasn’t financially inclined and had no interest in taking over the trusteeship of the estates. Pretty much by default, I agreed to pick up the mantle that my father had carried for more than three decades. Dad told me I was going to learn a lot. In my father’s final declining months, he hired an attorney who threaded the complicated legal process required to appoint me as the successor trustee for both trusts. In December 2001, Dad passed away. It was all on me now.

In my new role, the first snag I encountered came when I went to the local Social Security office to report my father’s death and petition that I become Uncle Dick’s new “representative payee” for his modest $400-a-month disability check. The clerk dutifully filled out some forms, and I left. A few weeks later, I started receiving mail to the effect that Uncle Dick’s checks were being stopped because he had passed away. Someone had evidently checked an incorrect box.

I wasn’t so worried about the small monthly check, but the thought of my elderly uncle losing his government health benefits was scary. I immediately called the Social Security office and eventually was able to talk to a live person. Unfortunately, the problem did not get resolved.

I started hearing stories about people who had similar issues that lingered for more than a year. Getting desperate, I planned to contact a local politician to see if he could somehow help. Before I did that, I called Social Security one more time. I was connected with a more competent agent, who understood how to address the problem and had it resolved in about two weeks.

I took care of my uncle’s affairs for 10 years. I found a good accountant to complete the multiple tax returns required for the trusts. I also worked with the broker that my father had used to manage the funds in the two trusts. I had never previously worked with an accountant or broker.

Early one Sunday morning, I got a call that Uncle Dick had unexpectedly passed away at age 79. With Dick deceased, the function of the trusts was complete. Now, the task was to distribute the remaining assets, about $500,000. I contacted an old high school buddy, now a highly respected attorney, to help me. The two wills that created the two trusts were set up with per stirpes provisions, meaning that if a beneficiary was deceased, that beneficiary’s share would pass to his children. Don, Jack and Dick had no children.

My father’s portion would be shared by my three sisters and me. Bob had one son, Bobby, who was in a group home. I was in touch with cousin Bobby, but he hadn’t heard from his father in many years. No one in the family had any valid contact information. The question hanging over the estate settlement process: Would Bob’s share go to him or his son? I searched Social Security records online to see if Bob had passed away but couldn’t find anything. My understanding was that he hadn’t been in great health even before my father’s death, and by now he would be in his early 90s if still alive.

After several months of uncertainty, one of my attorney’s sharp paralegals found that Bob was indeed alive, though suffering from dementia. He was under the care of a guardian in his state. His guardian was competent, helpful and very easy to work with. She even sent me recent photos of the uncle I never knew.

My attorney worked out how the distribution of Bob’s half of the two inheritances would proceed under the circumstances. The mantle for managing Bob’s inheritance was passed on to his very capable guardian. Uncle Bob, who was known as “Billy Bob” or “William” to his caretakers, lived another six years, passing away at age 98. According to his guardian, the inheritance funds “were a blessing to William, they gave him a much better quality of life in a great assisted living facility with his favorite nurse Pam.”

My father’s prediction that I would “learn a lot” turned out to be quite the understatement. What would he think of the way I handled the job that he so faithfully carried on for three decades? I don’t know for sure. But I hope he’d be proud.

Ken Cutler lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and has worked as an electrical engineer in the nuclear power industry for more than 38 years. There, he has become an informal financial advisor for many of his coworkers. Ken is involved in his church, enjoys traveling and hiking with his wife Lisa, is a shortwave radio hobbyist, and has a soft spot for cats and dogs. Check out Ken’s earlier articles.

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