Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Last Will and Testament

Working through the probate following Doug's death has been incredibly frustrating, time consuming, and not a little depressing. Mary and I have already devoted hundreds of hours trying to get a handle on Doug's financial affairs, and we're still only scratching the surface. Although I was fortunate enough to find his will within hours of my arrival in Edmonton, and although his will was extremely simple, the rest of the paperwork has been incredibly complicated.

There are two factors here: First, Doug's finances are hopelessly confusing -- he had dozens of accounts with different banks and stock brokers -- I'm not sure we have still found them all. He originally kept fairly good records of what stocks he bought and sold, but that record system seems to have broken down in the late 1990s; now we just have piles of receipts and cancelled checks, all piled in apparently random boxes scattered around the apartment. No doubt there was some system known to Doug, but I haven't been able to deduce it. Our only lead is that, being March, he had started on his income tax, so there was one table piled high with tax return info that gave us a bit of an entree to it all.

The second factor is the catch-22 is that we had to estimate the total value of his estate for probate; but we could not access any of the information necessary to answer that question until after probate. If we went to the bank, the bank said they could not talk to us until I could prove I was the executor; but I don't get to be the executor unless I can say how much is in each of the bank accounts! It's crazy! I couldn't even be positive that there wasn't a more recent will (though his lawyer was certain he hadn't done a newer one) because the banks couldn't even tell me if he had a safety deposit box, let alone let me look to see if there was a will inside.

Similarly, I guess I appreciate that credit card companies can't just allow you to phone up and say so and so has died, cancel their card, because it would be too easy to screw over your neighbour or enemies. But without being able to cancel his cards or access his mail or talk to the banks or stockbrokers, it's awfully difficult to figure out what he owed to whom or what income he had coming in. In the end, we just had to come up with our best estimate, and go from there.

And all of this was further complicated by my brother also being in charge of my mother's financial affairs for the last several years, she being blind, bed ridden, and no longer competent. If access to my brothers info was limited, access to my mother's finances was absolutely out of the question. Only Doug could have access to her accounts, and clearly, I am not he.

Doug's will specified Mom as his executrix, and me as back up; so I not only have to apply to have her certified unfit to serve as executor, but also for guardianship over her, so I could take charge of her affairs -- which now include the not insubstantial estate of my brother. But you guessed it, in order to apply for guardianship, I had to estimate the size of her estate, which is problematic because we can't get access until I'm officially her guardian!

And the process is so slooowww. We can't move on either probate or guardianship without the report from mom's doctor, who has just left for three weeks vacation when I take in the form to be filled out; when the form finally arrives and we take it into the lawyer, he asks a million questions about mom's family -- when did my dad die, where was mom born, what was her mom's maiden name, where was grandmother born, where was grandfather born, etc. etc. Unfortunately, Mom was the one who kept track of family tree, and when she no longer could, Doug took it on. I had no clue; and there is no hope asking mom anything now. So it was a matter of tracking down cousins and asking them what they remembered. But even there, why would they remember the year my dad died when I could even recall for certain (i wasn't close to my dad).

The irony is that, given that we had some glimpse of how complicated all this could be when my father-in-law passed away a few weeks earlier, I had suggested to Doug that, seeing how mom was approaching her 99th birthday, it might not be amiss to get some of the paperwork organized in advance when we were not having to deal with the emotions and funerals and everything else. So Doug had agreed that we should sit down when I was next due in Edmonton, April 9-10, and nail down all the required details -- basic stuff like where Mom's will is, and where her mother had been born and her maiden name and so on. And I had said to Mary, once we finish doing Mom's, I'll push Doug to give me some info on where he kept his will etc. But of course, he died two weeks before the scheduled meeting.

All of which has made Mary and I fairly impossible for people to be around, because we end up lecturing everyone we encounter to (a) do a will, if they haven't got one (we are astounded at the number of parents who have never given thought or pen to paper about what happens to their kids if something happens to both of them!); (b) to tell everyone where the damn thing is; (c) to have a list of bank accounts and brokerages etc etc somewhere with the will, and (d) to have joint accounts wherever possible, since accessing accounts is otherwise very complicated. I'm quite sure our friends, colleagues, neighbours, and grocery clerks are thoroughly sick of hearing us harp on about this, but good grief people, a little planning if you please!

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