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Finding Balance in Traditions What to do When a Loved One Passes

By Attorney Katherine S. Breckenridge, Esq.

Published November 2, 2018 – INSIDENOVA / Culpeper Times

Probate & Administration : What to do when a loved one passes – Seven Steps

In the early morning magic of the local farmers’ market, as the end-of-summer weather tried to hang on – even in October, my favorite purveyor of candles and I shared a story that brought back memories of yesteryear.

“Here, smell this candle; to me it smells like Christmas morn.” Indeed it did. This artist of candle-making had captured the essence, causing us to reminisce about the fire in the hearth, the orange and nuts in the bottom of each stocking, and the Lifesaver books that we had in common in our childhood Christmas traditions.

In the hours that followed, prompted by the memory of those Lifesaver books, I thought that I might write a heartwarming story about an element of beauty found in estate planning experiences, for there are so many – each and every day. As I am enjoying the pumpkin aroma from my newest candle purchase – a little more Fall appropriate, I re-center on what occurs irrespective of any season, any time, any age – and, what I wish I knew then.

You see, it was my great-aunt who would present me with a Lifesaver book at every Christmas season. I looked forward to the car ride through Pennsylvania’s snow covered mountains, arriving at my aunt’s Victorian home set in a picturesque town, and the visit that as the years waned was witness to a solitary life – set in finery, though with little means. I had no concept of what she sacrificed each year both in resources and logistics to present us with gifts of candy. Nor did I understand that when she was the recipient of a bag of groceries – tuna, bread, milk, Wink soda, cat food, batteries, and a box of chocolates as part of her gift, it was all important for her; as was the social visit, and the outing to the local restaurant.

The other night, as I sought assistance to remain focused on a task at hand, I listened to Fiddler on the Roof’s, “Tradition.” Not only do I love the deep baritone voice of Tevye, but I find some comfort in the lyrics, “And, how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word. Tradition.”

Lifesaver books, bags of groceries, visits from loved ones, and tradition appear at first to be unrelated. They are related, each adding a balance. From the view of a young girl, it was a building block – part of the ebb and flow of family interactions, instilling – unbeknownst to me, how to care for another. From the view of an aunt of senior years, perhaps it was her lifeline.

I was too young, or admittedly not mature enough in my early twenties, to understand the enormity of change that occurred when my aunt moved from her home into a nursing home, the toll it took on her when she lost her best friend, my grandmother, nor the tears she shed each time our visits came to a close.

When my aunt passed away, perhaps as many young adults find themselves, I was present during the events that followed though I did not grasp the meaning; however, now I understand. Those events, the viewing, the service, the reception, the words of condolence and expressions of hope, and visiting the graveside are traditions that keep us balanced in the cycle of life.

As an estate planning attorney, I frequently receive the inquiry, “My loved one has passed, now what?” From the view of how to handle the estate of the decedent, there are specific approaches and those may run concurrent with family traditions.

Step One: Contact the Funeral Home

Representatives of the funeral home are an incredible resource. They will oversee the transportation and preparation of the body for cremation or burial, organ donation, writing and publishing the obituary, the arrangements for funeral and celebration services, and obtaining copies of the death certificate.

Step Two: Contact Your Pastor and the Pastor of the Decedent

Grief is unique to each individual. The passing of a loved one is an occurrence for which little in life prepares one. Surround yourself with those who can offer support, even when you are unsure if you need it or how to ask for it.

Step Three: Notifying Family, Friends, and Employer

The pastor of the decedent and a family member or friend may be instrumental in sharing with others, including the decedent’s employer, that your loved one has passed.

Step Four: Banks, Credit Card Companies, and Utility Providers

Wait. Stop. Go to Step Six. Why isn’t this step six instead four? It is placed in this order of descent because more often than naught, right after contacting the funeral home and loved ones the next inclination of a survivor is to contact the decedent’s banks, credit card companies, and utility providers to let them know about the passing. The survivor thinks she is doing the right thing by providing such information; however, contacting the banks, credit card companies, and utility providers should not be affected until one speaks with an estate planning/probate attorney.

Step Five: Care for Dependents and Pets

In the event there is a dependent spouse who is the survivor and who lives in the family residence, make arrangements for dependent spouse’s care. If family members are unable to provide care that was previously provided by the decedent, if appropriate, consider contacting a company who provides in-home care.

If the decedent had minor children and there is no surviving parent able to care for the minor children, consider having family members care for the minors until legal guardianship of the minors can be determined. The goal is to provide an interim safe and nurturing environment.

In addition to the above dependents, many decedents leave behind a furry, four-legged love that will be in need of a roof over its head and food in its dish. Preparation is often made for the care of and provision for pets in ones will or trust. However, Fido may go hungry waiting for the dispositive terms of a will or trust to be determined; thus, consider assigning a family member to provide temporary care for the furry love, or hire a pet care service.

Step Six: Contact an Estate Planning/Probate Attorney

An estate planning attorney, who understands the probate process, will encourage you to locate the following documents if the decedent had them in place at the time of death: last will and testament, trust(s), proof of assets funded into the trust(s), deeds to real property, proof of interests owned in businesses, last statements for cash, savings, and wealth management accounts, and documentation on life insurance, retirement plan(s), and other benefits. In the event the decedent did not have a will or trust in place, the attorney will still want to review the remaining information.

In either case, before any action is taken related to the probate process, the attorney will want to get an understanding of the decedent’s assets, as well as her debts. Seeking such counsel upfront, may save you from making a misstep, and should help you put in place a roadmap for settling the estate of the decedent.

Step Seven: Coming to Terms with Death

Though you may have contacted your pastor upon receiving the news of the decedent’s passing, in addition to staying in touch with your pastor and relying on his spiritual guidance, consider becoming involved with a group that focuses on grief counseling.

Seeing the transformation of an individual who has suffered the loss of a loved one – where death has come and interrupted, is a provision of hope. The precious survivor who initially gasps for air, attempts to rise above the demands of paperwork and questions, leans on her faith, slowly gets her footing, and relying on familiar traditions and creating new ones often reaches a balance that encompasses a healing and peace, providing encouragement to those who may follow in her footsteps.