Saturday, February 22, 2014


Death is a lot of paperwork. If you've been around in the last six months, you've probably heard me say this. A few of you have even witnessed me shouting it at the sky.

No one ever tells you how hard it is to settle an estate. How in the midst of an emotional storm you have to make decisions and fill in forms and sign things that move money and assets. How you have to deal with people who may express sympathy, but don't genuinely feel it because they deal with ten of you every day.

I've come to think that we twenty-first century Americans cloak the ends of life in mystery, because no one ever tells you the nitty-gritty truth about childbirth or breastfeeding, either, but I really don't understand why. Like giving birth, settling an estate is, I suppose, not a path one can walk until the circumstances of life lead to it, but I think it would be easier if the whole process were more public. Being present for someone else's turn down the path, seeing the process, would make it easier to walk the path, I think.

The worst part for me has been the way that paperwork has the power to interrupt my day. I may be having a good writing day or working on a household project or reading a good book, and a phone call from one of the banks or the insurance agents or the prosecutor's office or the IRS or the SSA can pull me out of whatever it is I've chosen to do and demand my attention. After the phone call (or e-mail or letter), I'm not always able to return to the progress I had been making.

It seems like just when I think I am caught up, when I feel sure I have a handle on everything, something else pops up. This is very unsettling. It's hard to plan my time when recent experience has taught me to be always waiting for yet another shoe to drop. The grief-induced brain fog I've talked about before further complicates the situation. There is always a moment in which I am thinking, "Is this new? Or did I know this and forget? I couldn't possibly have made such an oversight, could I?" Sometimes I did forget, but not always. Seven months on, new tasks are still being added to my list.

Death is a lot of paperwork. Each piece of paper looks simple. Taking care of all of them is really hard.

There are some things that have made my situation easier:
1. I was my husband's only spouse ever.
2. I knew his system for creating passwords.
3. Joint checking accounts.

There are some things that would have made my situation even easier than that:
1. Having my name on all of the assets and accounts, even the ones acquired or created before we were married.
2. Having important papers stored logically in one place.

I am neither a legal nor a financial expert, so I want to be careful not to give blanket advice, but I think I can safely say the following to everyone:

1. Have a will.
2. Give your next of kin the key to your password system.
3. Invest thought, time, and energy into a filing system that even the fog-brained can follow. Show your next of kin how it works.

Death is a part of life, and we do not know when we will arrive there. It is wrong of us to avoid thinking about it and planning for it. It is wrong for people in their twenties and thirties to put off writing a will. It is wrong to sustain the mystery. 

Death is a lot of paperwork, and you should know that because someday you will be the next of kin.