Thursday, March 27, 2008

Things you need to know about death: Stuff

Chances are, the vast majority of us are going to have to one day wind up a loved one's personal matters following his or her death. If you've been reading this blog, you'll know that my dad died two weeks ago and I've been working with my family to take care of my dad's affairs.

I wrote about the financial part of this in my last post, but there's more to tying up personal affairs than money. There's also stuff.

As far as priorites are concerned, financial matters take precedence: if you're on your own winding up a loved one's affairs, take care of the finances first and don't worry about the deceased person's possessions right away. In our case, my sibling and I were there to help my mom, so we figured that we'd better attack everything during the time we had to spend together. Here are some thoughts I came up with while dealing with the stuff:

1. It might be harder than you think.
This was absolutely the case, especially for my mom. My sibling and I could have probably done the whole thing in a day or two, but it was so hard for my mom to be involved in this process that we had to drastically slow down our pace since we didn't want to get rid of anything without giving her a chance to render a verdict. As a result, it took us a full week to clear out 99% of my dad's things.

What you can do to make things easier for your survivors:
This is a great argument for minimalism. Keeping things that you don't need or love makes more work for your survivors when you're gone. That doesn't mean throwing out things that are important to your family history (like a couple of things that surprised us when we came across them, one dating back to 1885), but it does mean setting standards for what important means and adjusting it according to your living space. Even though my dad was pretty good about not letting too many things accumulate, we still ended up with thirty (thirty!) large bags of just clothes, his organizational weakness.

Another way to look at it is that clutter can cause additional pain for your nearest and dearest when you're gone. Don't know about you, but I find that pretty motivating.

2. Don't disregard hidden treasures.
Charity or thrift stores aren't the only option for getting rid of clothes in particular. Clothes that are clean, unstained, and only a couple of years old can often go to consignment shops, although the market for men's clothes seems to be much more limited than for women. It's probably not going to bring you a fortune, but getting a little something is better than getting nothing. You could also have a garage sale or estate sale, but that's not something we wanted to do.

For genuine antiques or other items of value, you can probably get an expert to make an appraisal and maybe even a purchase offer. I haven't done this myself, but you don't lose anything by calling around in your area.

What you can do to make things easier for your survivors:
It helps if you have an idea what stuff is valuable and document it accordingly.

3. Order and organization helps.
Whatever the amount of stuff, it absolutely helps to have it organized in a logical way: one place for shoes, one place for clothes, one place for important records like tax documents and estate planning. There's far less risk of throwing out something important by mistake.

What you can do to make things easier for your survivors:
Neatness is a virtue.

4. If all else fails, call a liquidator.
There are plenty of companies out there that specialize in setting one price to take anything and everything away. They resell or recycle where possible and take on responsibility for disposing of everything else.

What you can do to make things easier for your survivors:
Not much; this is really a personal choice for them.

Overall, while a few items belonging to a loved one can and should become treasured mementoes, I don't think it's healthy to keep much. Part of surviving a death is moving past it and building a new life, and it's hard to do that while surrounded with the detrius of the old one.

Nothing about the last couple of weeks has been easy, but we're working on moving forward. That's what my dad would have wanted.

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Sunday, March 23, 2008

Things you need to know about death: Money

This has been an interesting ten days or thereabouts. Since my last post, I've learned far more than I ever wanted to about what happens when someone dies. One thing I don't understand is this:

Everyone goes through this with family and friends. Given that that's the case, why doesn't anyone talk about it?

I'm not talking about the emotional part; I like to think I'm the least emotionally constipated of my entire immediate family (yay divorce counseling!), and we've all talked the emotional part to death, no pun intended. What I mean is:

How come no one talks about the practical stuff that survivors need to know?

Well, I'm talking about it. Here's what I've learned about the financial aspects of losing a loved one:

1. The funeral industry is pretty gross.
Yes, it is. It's easy to blow a fortune on caring for a loved one's remains, and funeral homes are more than happy to help you do it. In my family, however, we think of funerals as being more for the survivors than for the deceased. For us, grief is private (I understand the irony here given that I'm blogging about my personal finances to you all), and grief is not about spending money. Fortunately, my folks discussed this with me and my sibling in advance, so it was a no-brainer: my dad went to the funeral home that happened to be on call that night, and we had a cremation without a service and opted for the lowest-end cremation container and urn that were available. (The urn turned out to be a very nice hardwood box.) Even the low-end option cost close to two thousand dollars, all payable in advance.

What you can do to make things easier for your survivors:
Discuss the options available in advance, and get a price list from the local funeral homes if you need to. Whatever you choose, make sure you set aside enough money to cover it in an account that your survivors can access immediately.

2. Scammers love obituaries
Identity thieves and other suchlike lowlifes watch the obituary column in the local newspaper for opportunties to steal the identities of the recently deceased. Thanks to the helpful information available in obituaries, it's far too easy to determine where the deceased lived, and that's all some scammers need to get their game going. The thing I find the most mind-blowing is that some financial institutions even accept obituaries as sufficient evidence to change account ownership details. Given that grieving relatives are unlikely to have monitoring identity activity for the recently deceased as their first priority, there's a great window of opportunity for nefarious activity to take place undetected.

What you can do to make things easier for your survivors:
Leave instructions detailing that an obituary not be published. In our case, my parents agreed on this in advance on the grounds that we believe in keeping our grief private and that we're aware of the nasty things that people can do with obituaries.

3. Get thee to the Social Security Administration
The Social Security Administration needs to know about a death at the earliest possible opportunity, and they require an in-person visit. If the deceased was receiving Social Security payments, don't cash them! For beneficiaries of a traditional pension, pension plan administrators also need to be notified of the death right away, and those payments can't be cashed either. Survivors will need to fill out paperwork for both. Depending on what time of the month the death takes place, an interruption in benefits is not only possible, it's likely.

What you can do to make things easier for your survivors:
If you have a traditional pension and a spouse or qualified domestic partner, make sure you opt for an annuity benefit option so that your spouse or partner will continue to receive payments after your death. For Social Security, make sure that you and your spouse or partner both know what Social Security benefits are available for your survivor if you die first. (My mom is a fantastic financial manager, but even she boffed this last one. Fortunately, her estimate was short of the actual instead of the other way around.)

If you can see a gap between income streams and your spouse's living expenses, then you know what to do: Save, save, save so you can close that gap. Even if you don't anticipate a gap --and if that's the case, then I want to be on your pension plan--, make sure you have enough money set aside in an account your spouse can access to cover living expenses during an interruption in benefits.

If you don't have a spouse or qualified domestic partner, then income is off the table. (In fact, I'm pretty sure that not terminating the income stream in this case is a felony.) Instead, think about how much you want to leave your survivors and save and plan accordingly. While you're at it, make sure they know who to call and what forms they need to fill out to notify income providers that the income needs to stop.

4. Estate planning is a must
The death of a loved one is bad enough. If the loved one is intestate, that will cause all kinds of problems when it comes to dividing the estate. Don't assume that it automatically goes to the nearest and dearest; while local laws on this topic may vary to some extent, the decision of who gets what overwhelmingly lies in the hands of the courts.

What you can do to make things easier for your survivors:
Write a will. If you don't want your survivors to have to deal with probate, put your assets into a revocable living trust. Either way, name an executor that you can trust. My parents went the revocable living trust route, and I think that was the right choice for them. We still have to do a lot of paper-pushing to get the trust updated to reflect my father's death, but we don't have to deal with the courts to do it.

Personally, I'm remiss on this one: I have a holographic will written on a standard form from a stationary store and witnessed by a few friends, but it doesn't have a legal stamp of approval on it. As soon as my employer starts our annual benefits enrollment for 2009, though, you can bet your bippy that I'm signing up for our group legal plan and putting this one to bed.

There's a great deal more to know about a loved one's death, so check back here in a few days for a new post. In the meantime, go hug your familes and tell them you love them.

That's all.

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Thursday, March 13, 2008

Gone for a while

My dad died.

I'm off taking care of business for a while. Be well.

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Sunday, March 9, 2008

Shredder on steroids

Let me preface this by saying that in this age of identity theft, I think everyone should have a home shredder. I shred everything that has my name on it and if you send me something in the mail, then by golly, I'll shred your name too on the grounds that do unto others is all part of the great circle of life.

On Friday night, I spent a wild night as a single woman in New York doing something really fantastic and out there:

I shredded my 2006 non-tax financial documents.

Aside from the normal day-to-day junk mail shredding, I normally keep a year's worth of financial documents on hand, so after tax season I do the scintillating task of shredding the year before last's documents, usually all in one night. I've managed to burn out the motor on a couple of shredders over the past few years, and Friday night my current model (five concurrent pages max, irritatingly small bin) also went to the home office graveyard.

Going through three shredders in less than seven years is a pretty clear stamp of the obvious that the price I'm willing to pay doesn't match the horsepower I need, so I resolved to go to Staples and find a machine that can handle the workload. Saturday was dumping rain, but after running sixteen miles I came home to a six-inch pile of shredding, so I cleaned up and went right back out.

Staples in Manhattan carries shredders only under their own brand these days, and they range from little tykes shaped like a mayonnaise jar that only run three sheets at once to great big monsters that handle thirty sheets or more at a pop.

I think I've graduated to a monster.

The monster shredders were really expensive, so I walked around slowly trying to calculate price differentials by continuous run time and the number of sheets that can go through at one time. I had almost settled on a model that met my price point and most of the functionality I wanted (but with a disagreeably small bin) until I saw It.

It was a behemoth among shredders. Standing only a few inches below my waist, the label on the display model boasted a twenty-four concurrent sheet capacity, twelve minutes of continuous running time, and a thirty-gallon bin. Best of all, it was a clearance model, so all in-house stock was on sale for half price, $69.50.

I corralled a sales dude walking around aimlessly and said That's the one I want, but I don't see it out here. Do you have any left in the storeroom?

Sales dude thought.

Naw, he said. We don't got any more.

So, basically sales dude was telling me that for all intents and purposes, Staples had a bait and switch operation in progress.

Bait and switch chaps my ass.

Well, it shouldn't be out on the sales floor, then, should it? I asked icily.

Sales dude shrugged. I dunno, he said, and strolled away.

Rats.

I looked at my choices again and still felt dissatisfied. Sales dude #2 came up shortly thereafter.

I understand that you don't have anymore of these, I said. What kind of a discount will you give me if I buy the floor model?

Sales dude #2 said he didn't know, but he went off to find out. When he returned, he told me that there was no discount for floor models, but that the one-year service guarantee was applicable.

Well, what to do? It was either:

a. Stick to my price point and buy a shredder I knew I wouldn't be happy with and would probably kill within a year or two,
b. Go way beyond my price point and buy the monster shredder I knew I really needed, or
c. Buy the floor model of the perfect shredder that was exactly at my price point, save the guarantee document and receipt, and be happy if it lasts longer than any of my prior models.

I opted for c. To my great pleasure, an additional $8.00 fell off the price when the cash register recognized that I was buying the last model in stock and correctly flagged it as a floor model. To my slight irritation, there was no box available (Box? the clerk asked vaguely when I requested one. I dunno. I guess we don't got one), so I faced up to the prospect of wrangling a monster shredder with plastic bags taped all over it through the New York City subway system in a pounding rainstorm.

I actually thought I would be able to do this.

I got as far as outside and then immediately gave up and splurged on a cab ride, which serendipitously cost exactly $8.00 including a generous tip.

I'm happy to say that the shredder is an animal. It fits exactly under my desk (but wheels out for accessibility), and it accepts not only 24 sheets of paper at a shot, but DVD's and credit cards as well. I got through the remaining six inches of documents in less than five minutes, and a thirty-gallon bin means that I won't be emptying it all that frequently.

Floor models aren't always much of a bargain, but in this case I think I got maximum bang for the buck.

Got anything you need shredded?

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Sunday, March 2, 2008

When travel is its own reward

I'm writing this from the Windy City tonight. I'm residing in a large hotel without my pajamas, which are sitting on my bed in New York right where I forgot to pack them.

Good thing for those big 'ol conference T-shirts.

I've been doing a lot more traveling for work lately than I ordinarily do, and I'm not loving it all that much. While it's nice to go out for dinner on someone else's dime, I find the travel really draining and there's just not enough time to go out and do all the fun stuff I want to do in new cities. This week, I don't think I'll be getting out at all.

Not buying groceries this week, however, is a definite plus. Plus, I get to keep my air miles. As I was mulling over what I was going to order for dinner in my room (something I would never pay for myself since the charges are extortionate), I started thinking about to what extent I view spending the company's money as being different from spending my own money.

In some ways, there's not that much difference. I generally don't take cabs on a business trip if reasonable public transportation is available, although what I consider reasonable is subject to change according to the circumstances. (Dragging luggage through London's Victoria Station at morning rush hour after plowing through a torrential rainstorm: Did it. Not reasonable.) I spent an hour on the train and walked a mile to get to my hotel today, but I'm only charging $2 back to the firm instead of a $40 cab ride. Beyond that, I never make any calls on the hotel phone unless I'm out of the US, since work pays for my cell phone service and I seldom come even close to using up all my minutes for the month. Any incidental expenses I incur (newspaper, afternoon snack, what have you) are all things I pay for personally as well.

In other ways. . . well, like I said, room service. I wouldn't pay for that myself, but I'm quite happy to charge it to my employer. I don't go hog wild on the food, but I order what I want - again, within reason. If I'm staying for longer than a week, I'll happily send out my laundry and charge it back, but even if it wasn't against policy to do it for a stay of less than a week, I wouldn't feel right about it. I fly business class on every international trip and stretch the flight fare policy as far as I can domestically to get either miles or upgrades. I guess I feel a little bit justified in having a decent stay given that I'm away from home for work.

Do you travel for business? What do you spend the company's money on that you wouldn't do if it meant using your own money?

****Addendum****
The nice people at Mint.com asked me to share this with you. Don't say I never gave you anything.

Mint’s Holiday Spending Hangover Contest

Mint.com wants to pay off your holiday bills! Tell Mint.com your “holiday debt-ache” story in video or written words and we’ll pay up to $5,000 of your holiday credit card debt plus free credit counseling! Play up the drama, originality, and humor because viewers/readers determine if you qualify to win. Get friends and family to rate your video/story to increase your chances of winning. Mint.com for more information.

The contest opens January 31, 2008 and ends March 15, 2008. Two grand prize winners will be awarded on April 1, 2008—one for the best video and one for the best story. They can use the money to pay off holiday debt, fund their IRA before April 15, or pay their taxes if the want.

The contest is open to persons 18 years and older in all 50 United States. You do not need to be a Mint customer to enter the contest. Multiple entries are welcome, as long as the entrant uses unique email addresses for each entry. Please read all rules and regulations before entering.

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