For the last eleven months, I’ve been dealing with my late sister’s estate. I took on the role in order to ease the burden for my parents. Dealing with tragedy in the middle of a pandemic, while also being in a different country didn’t make this any easier.
However, as of writing this, I have finally (I hope) completed everything that I had to. So now I want to talk about it, and also give some advice to people.
NOTE: Please remember I am in the UK and any information or advice I share is in respect to how things work in the UK and so may be different in other countries.
The Importance Of A Will
If I can give any single piece of advice, it is get a Will and name an Executor. You don’t need to have oodles of cash or even a House or Car to warrant having a Will. If my sister had had a Will, half of the stuff I went through would have been easier, faster and less painful.
Without a Will, the estate is Intestate and trying to get companies and corporations like banks to deal with you becomes twice as hard. Things become more foggy without a Will.
Yes it costs money, but honestly for your peace of mind and to reduce your family’s stress, get a Will. This is even more important if you a) have any assets like a House and/or b) if you have any dependants.
Also, if you have pets, include details about what you want to happen to them – who you want to take care of them. Never assume family and friends will take them. I’ve worked in rescues so I know these animals aren’t always taken in by your loved ones. Even some of my own rescued animals were ones that were abandoned by families following a loved ones death.
(So include who you want to look after them – check they are okay to – and then add a backup such as a shelter/charity. Some of these have specific wings of their charity that take in animals following a passing to give them a forever home).
Back to Wills. Don’t just use a Template Will (except for using it to make notes of your financies, requirements etc) then take the details to a solicitor and get them to draft up a Will for you. These can often miss important things, it’s best just to speak directly to a solicitor and get them to go through it all with you.
This is always a task people put off. So why not add it to the TOP of your OOT List.
Store Your Passwords
Our digital lives are pretty damn vast these days. I myself have over 100 accounts for different things, from social media, to online banking and pensions, to accounts with e-shops, insurance companies, to software programs and many more.
So many things now expect or demand you have a digital account with them. Gone are the days of the “guest accounts” to allow you to make a quick purchase. Few places have those now. Whether it’s insurance or car breakdown recovery, everything is moving completely online.
Now, following my sister’s death, I could not believe how hard it was to get things closed down. Some of her social media is STILL up because I’m struggling to get them closed. There were other things, finanicial things that I had to argue with as they said they needed me to do things through their “portal” using the sign-ins.
Trying to make them understand that I had NO sign-in details and they needed to either give them to me, or we had to sort it without the portal was excrutiating.
Also, remember that so much information is now sent via email. So while my sister had a lot of paperwork for us to go through, I know there was a lot more probably stored in her email (which we were never able to access). Also, I know she had more than one email address, but have no idea what the second one was as she never used it with us.
So take some time, write down all your account numbers, write down passwords, put them on paper. This can be sealed up in an envelope and kept in a safe or safety deposit box, or with your Will (with your solicitor).
My sister’s laptop broke before she passed away and we weren’t able to retrieve any data off it so anything she kept digitally was lost.
Now, some people worry about writing down passwords etc. Remember most data breaches are caused from hacking not from reaching your passwords on a piece of paper. This is why you need to keep your passwords strong and don’t use the same password.
If you want to keep your passwords safe, as I said, keep the list sealed and with your Will and if you are really worried, don’t write “password list” on the envelope. People do sometimes write letters to their loved ones and leave them with the Will so including an envelope shouldn’t be an issue.
Make a Detailed Record
When dealing with the estate of someone, you will be on the phone – a lot. So be prepared, keep a record of important details of your loved one. This includes their date of birth, date of death, last address (in my sister’s case, 7 different addresses!), national insurance number/social security number, driving license number, passport number etc.
I ended up picking a large A4 pad, and just wrote everything I could down about my sister and her accounts. I then gave each company/corporation/intitute it’s own double page spread where I could up all notes and details.
Keep a record of EVERYONE you speak to , every company you call and ALL their details.
This included the name of the company, their phone numbers, fax numbers, email addresses, opening times, any reference numbers they gave me.
Keep records of the names of who you spoke to, the date and even the time. You will not believe how often I was told there was “no record” of my call. When you can give a name, date and time of when you spoke – those records usually appear fast enough.
You will often have to talk to multiple people through the whole thing, so keeping a record of who you spoke to, when and what was said, what was promised and push for when they will do this by, it really helps. Some of my records ended up being 8 pages long due to the amount of time I’ve had to chase for details, send info, wait for letters etc.
Be Prepared For Bureacracy
Expect to deal with a lot of frustration and anxiety, while you try and navigate the mine-field of bureacracy.
People will not know how to deal with the situation and too many companies use scripts and seem incapable of dealing with things outside of that script.
IF you are lucky, the company/institution will have a dedicated Bereavements Department (but more often than not, they won’t). When you call them, ASK to speak to this department immediately – it’s the fastest way to find out if they have one. If they do, make a note of that phone number and use it all the time – it’s a priority line and they can really help you.
A quick shout out to HMRC’s bereavement department who were incredibly supportive while I had to sort my sister business accounts and self assessment for her taxes. They were (surprisingly) great.
Also, make sure you keep ALL paperwork, emails from companies etc for at least a year. I never trust that things are all “done and dusted”. So I want to be prepared in case something comes back. So all the paperwork, all replies, confirmations and receipts received from all the companies, financial institutes etc are boxed up and kept in the attic… just in case.
Know Who To Pay First
There are things people don’t always realise. All monies in bank accounts, insurances and pensions as well as any cash the person has, needs to be collected together and makes up the person’s estate.
Any monies that come from the Estate need to be used to pay any creditors and expenses however there is an ORDER:
- Funeral (before any creditors or anything else, the funeral can be paid for/claimed back from the estate)
- Death expenses (so anything you had to pay out due to the death such as copies of death certificate etc)
- Taxes (Any taxes owed to HMRC)
- Everyone else (all creditors are then paid at the same level, if there’s enough money to cover them all, fine, if not then they each get a percentage)
- If your loved one has any debts when they die, you would be best to get advice about the legality of this by talking to the National Debtline. (f you have debt, then check out their page and their webchat service).
Remember ONLY THE ESTATE is liable for any debts that need to be paid. If there is not enough money in the estate then these debts do not fall on you. The only caveat to this is if the debt was jointly owned and the other person is still alive. AND I think HMRC, I think they have to be paid either way.
NEVER pay anyone (except funeral and taxes) until all the monies from the estate have come through. You may get pushed by some creditors, ignore them, state you are still waiting on closing accounts etc. Don’t let a creditor push you into paying before you know what the estate is worth.
Regarding paying people, the family has to show they made sufficient effort to find any creditors who may be owed. To do this, it is recommended that you contact The Gazette, where you can place a notice about the deceased. This is checked by many companies/corporations etc who can then be in contact if there is a debt.
Creditors have two months and a day from when the notice is placed in The Gazette to inform the family of the debt owing. After that, they cannot claim. Please note if you DON’T do this, I believe you can then be liable to pay these debts and there is not the same two months and a day timeframe.
Tell Us Once
There is a feature in the UK called “Tell Us Once” it’s a Government system that allows you to register the death and then all the government departments are automatically informed – so that is Passport, DVLA, State Benefits, National Insurance, State Pensions, etc.
If you can use this, I highly recommend it.
When There is a Complication
When someone dies, what usually happens (in the UK) is that death is registered and the death certificate is generated.
However, depending on how a person dies can affect this. My sister’s death required a post-mortem and an inquest. This meant that we could only get an Interim Death Certificate not a Full Death Certificate (not until after the Inquest which can take months and was delayed due to the pandemic).
It was also the reason we couldn’t use the Tell Us Once service as the death can’t be fully registered when an inquest is needed which means things were “in the air” shall we say.
This meant I had to contact every company individually and some wouldn’t accept the coroner-signed Interim Death Certificate! Despite it being valid and acceptable, that was a long up-hill battle.
Mixing Digital with Analog
One thing I was surprised with was just how much I HAD to do online, but also had to do offline. I had to fill in online forms, but then was not able to email the death certificate or certain forms of ID.
Instead, the same company that demanded things be sent online, insisted the original death certificate had to be sent by post (and if I was lucky they would send it back ASAP… it costs to get more than one certificate and everyone and his dog needs to see it!).
This slowed things down a lot, even when we got multiple certificates to try and speed things up, there was still way more companies to send it to and waiting for them to come back was frustration. We even had one returned damaged.
It’s not always easy accepting condolences from people you don’t know. And the fact I could be transferred to several people in one organisation to get my request dealt with, meant that often each of those people would offer me their condolences.
The fact things took forever, meant I was tired of hearing their scripted condolences and eleven months later I still have to deal with it – even for companies I’ve rang dozens of time and spoken to the same people.
I try and remember that they don’t always realise we have heard those words a hundred times and it is awkward. So I would bite my tongue and just accept the words graciously, but sometimes… it was hard.
Especially if I was on my 5th call of trying to get something sorted and being given the run around and really didn’t want to hear their “condolences” and just wanted them to do their friggin’ job!
Tips regarding Dealing With Death
If someone you know has lost a loved one, please don’t ask them lots of questions – ESPECIALLY “how did they die?” We are already overwhelmed and having to think about answers to questions can be too much. Also, depending on how they died that may not be an appropriate question. If we wish to tell you, we will.
This even goes for trying to help. It can be nice to ask us “is there anything I can do?” but honestly, we can’t always think straight enough for that – even months later. So don’t be surprised if we say “no, thanks.”
What you CAN do is suggest something to do, that’s easier. Replace “do you need anything?” with “How about I…make you a few meals so you don’t have to think about cooking for the next few days.”
And if you REALLY know the person, don’t ask, just bring them food (and let them know they don’t have to eat it if they don’t want).
Seriously, my parents’ best friends did this. They just turned up with dishes full of food to take the pressure off having to cook. Neighbours just went over and mowed their lawn and brought up their bins. Little things that REALLY helped.
Obviously, this is best if you know the person well. As with anything, some people might react badly to this as a way of coping. Don’t take it personally, don’t get defensive, just apologise and step away, let them have some time. However, I truly believe most people will be thankful you did something or offered something.
If you insist on asking how the person died (not sure why you need to!) and the person doesn’t say, or deflects the question – don’t keep asking. It’s not something they want you to know or feel like discussing.
When the passing is still recent, don’t talk about deaths you’ve been through. It’s too early for us to deal/process that and it makes us feel like we have to show sympathy/empathy even if you aren’t looking for that.
Ask us what we want regarding talking… everyone is different. Some people want distraction, random chit chat. Others want to talk and vent and relive things about the person. Others want to chat about the person in a positive light rather than discuss their passing. Others don’t want to talk and might just prefer you to sit quietly with them and not offer your thoughts and insights.
Ask them which they want and respect their answer.
Check in with them at regular intervals, an old colleague of mine would drop me an odd text every few weeks/every month just telling me they were thinking about me. Reminding me they were there if I needed to talk. They even sent me a card with some flower seeds, it was a lovely personal gesture that meant a lot.
I was surprised who actually contacted me and who didn’t. I had old friends who I’ve known for decades who never reached out to me after they learnt of the death and old colleagues who checked on me many times and even zoom called me (when I was ready). You can truly learn who your friends are during dark times like this.
Don’t try and force them to do things like “go for walks” or “talk” or “do something productive”. We will do so when we’re good and ready.
Also, the opposite is the case, if we want to paint the fence, or do the food shopping, don’t tell us to “leave it” and to “relax”. Some people need the physical distraction.
Please don’t bring deep religion into a discussion unless you know that person is religious – this is especially important just after the passing. We appreciate you are doing it out of the goodness of your heart, but it can have an adverse affect.
I didn’t mind that people said “God bless” or that they “prayed for me or my family.” But some people tried to start long deep conversations about God and heaven and things happening for a reason and I hated it. So just think before you bring in religion, your religion, it’s not always comforting to everyone.
Dont invite yourself to the funeral – you will be surprised how many people tried to do this – even during a pandemic when we were limited in numbers and wanted to make sure her friends and family could all come. It made things very awkward when we had to tell them “no, you can’t come!”
I hadn’t actually expected to write this much, but I wanted to get all this out and actually found it cathartic to discuss and share these tips. Whether you find them useful or not, I definitely found it helpful write them.
Stay safe x