Unsettling Experience

Jeff Bond

MOM AND DAD WERE products of the Great Depression. I feel like it affected every single day of their lives. Despite their difficult upbringing, they made good financial decisions that allowed them to live comfortably. Part of it was because Dad worked for the same company for almost 42 years. His pension paid him more than I earned in my first job as an engineer.

When Mom died in August 2004, she was almost 84. My dad passed away in 2009, almost exactly five years later. He was 91. Mom and Dad did a good job of telling my sister, brother and me what they wanted to happen when the time came to divide their assets. They asked that everything be split equally among us three children.

Mom and Dad each had a will, along with a trust that was supposed to make the distribution of their accumulated wealth as easy as possible. But that, alas, didn’t happen.

I’m the oldest of the three siblings and, when Dad died, I was trustee and executor, which meant I was responsible for settling his estate. Shortly after Dad’s funeral, I took a day off work to visit the clerk of court in Alamance County, North Carolina. I live in Raleigh, so this was about an hour’s drive away. I obtained the recommended number of copies of the death certificate and letters testamentary, so I could begin work on his estate.

My sister and brother were on board to help, but my sister lived in Tennessee. My brother still lived in our hometown. Our initial focus was on emptying my parents’ very full house, making home repairs so the place could be sold, and dealing with their finances.

My brother did the lion’s share of the work clearing out the house. Whenever my parents didn’t want something, they put it in the attic. It was packed with junk. The living area was full of furniture that, for the most part, no one wanted. We filled many dumpsters, held an auction, and gave away countless items.

For jewelry, Mom had a very specific list of who should get what. This list wasn’t part of any will or trust document, just a typewritten list, with items under each of our names.

The required home repairs were substantial, costly and time-consuming. But it was their finances that were the hardest part. My dad had made me a signatory on his bank accounts, so paying funeral costs, medical expenses, other bills and our out-of-pocket costs wasn’t a problem. Soon, however, issues emerged.

First, I discovered that my dad had never closed Mom’s estate. Until he died, he was receiving and cashing dividend checks sent to my mom, because the stocks were still in her name. I don’t know why the bank let him do that. I had to reopen her estate, and get death certificates and letters testamentary to notify banks and other companies of her passing.

The second problem arose when I needed access to their safe-deposit box. To get the box opened, I had to get a court order of instruction and then take it to the bank. Inside the safe-deposit box, I found all the missing paper stock certificates. The bad news: Mom and Dad had also used the safe-deposit box as a place for unimportant papers and documents, including empty envelopes and lists.

Under the court’s instruction, a bank official was required to itemize what we found. The employee was incredulous about the number of empty envelopes she had to catalog.

The third unpleasant discovery: Very few of their holdings were ever placed in the living trust my parents had created. The house was in the trust, probably courtesy of the lawyer who drew up the trust paperwork. But most of their stocks and mutual funds remained in either Mom’s or Dad’s name.

My parents used a financial advisory firm, but my dad was extremely distrustful of lawyers and other professionals, so he didn’t reveal all their holdings. Still, the financial advisor’s office was helpful in establishing stock and mutual fund ownership.

The office was overjoyed when I found the paper stock certificates, because it meant they didn’t have to initiate the lost certificate process for so many different stocks. Over time, we were able to transfer all holdings into three different accounts, one for each child.

I managed all the financial paperwork on my own, except for the estate tax returns. At times, it felt like a second full-time job, but I never engaged a lawyer to help. Perhaps I should have. The clerk of court was patient with me up to a point, but she wanted to close both estates, even though there were still many details requiring resolution.

For example, I found a life insurance policy that my dad had taken out in the 1940s. His mother, who died in the early 1960s, was the beneficiary. The policy’s proceeds had been turned over to the New Jersey Unclaimed Property Administration. It never earned a penny of interest during the decades it remained in the state’s possession.

My parents also owned two weeks of a timeshare on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. Ever tried to sell a timeshare? Basically, I gave them away.

In addition, my parents owned two extra burial plots—don’t ask. No one would buy them. I finally gave them to my parents’ church for indigent burials. The church still requested prepayment of the grave preparation fees.

All these issues took me years to sort out. We had to have a tax preparer file estate tax returns for three years before I could close out everything.

I get anxious just thinking about the stress that my time as executor caused me. Want to make life easier for those settling your estate? From my hard-won experience, here are six lessons:

  • If you create a living trust, make sure assets are retitled to be part of the trust. One exception: Don’t retitle your IRA or 401(k) so it’s held by your living trust, because that can cause a big tax bill. To the IRS, it’s the same as a 100% withdrawal.
  • Keep unnecessary papers out of your safe-deposit box. Use it only for important documents. At the bank, add your executor to the list of people who can access your safe-deposit box. Let your executor and trustee know where you keep the box key.
  • Check and update your beneficiaries on all insurance policies, IRAs, 401(k)s and other assets that pass by title and hence outside of the probate process.
  • If you own stocks, allow the shares to be digitally maintained by your broker, financial advisor or investment house, rather than holding onto paper stock certificates.
  • Get rid of items you no longer use or need. My parents certainly didn’t need to keep every suitcase they ever owned, but their attic was a testament to their inability to part with stuff. No doubt this was a legacy of growing up during the Great Depression.
  • Don’t be afraid to use qualified professionals. Lawyers, financial advisors, accountants and tax professionals can provide valuable help when you badly need it.

Jeff Bond moved to Raleigh in 1971 to attend North Carolina State University and never left. He retired in 2020 after 43 years in various engineering roles. Jeff’s the proud father of two sons and, in 2013, expanded his family with a new wife and two stepdaughters. Today, he’s “Grandpa” three times over. In retirement, Jeff works on home projects, volunteers, reads, gardens, and rides his bike or goes to the gym almost every day. His previous article was They Pitched We Swung.

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