An elder orphan has plenty of matters to consider and eventually we all get around to the question of where we will live. I suppose that there is a different and unique answer for each of us.
A few of us will be quite content in a cabin in the woods with a wood-burning stove and a short trip to the creek for fresh water with a canine companion.
My wife and I began our married life together in a rented apartment, went on to buy our first modest home where we happily lived for several years among friendly neighbours. We moved on to build a comfortable new home in a small village. It was large enough to accommodate the family that never happened. After thirty-five years and confronted with health issues we reluctantly made the decision to move to a condominium in a near-by city.
Our condo is certainly spacious enough to accommodate us and has all of the amenities we need or want. We don’t at all miss the lawn mower or the snowblower.
In the village we enjoyed sitting on our front porch (or leaning on a snow shovel) and chatting with friends and neighbours as they tended to their own properties or were passing by led by the family pooch. In our condo the elevator ride from our lower level parking spot to the upper floor where we live takes less than fifteen seconds. It isn’t a lot of time to develop a friendship, or even conduct an introduction. Attempts to create some kind of cohesive community in our high-rise building have not met with success. Perhaps it is because of the diversity in age and cultures combined with busy schedules of most people that it hasn’t worked for us. I know of similar condominium communities where opportunities to interact with each other abound. Unfortunately not so for us. Perhaps it will eventually happen.
Our next move will probably be to what is referred to in Ontario as a retirement residence or an independent living facility. These residences are operated by independent companies that receive no subsidies from the government and are free to charge whatever the market will bear for the services that they provide. Although there are examples of this type of accommodation where condominiums exist, most of them are exclusively rentals. The accommodations can range from a smaller one room suite to spacious apartments. Services usually include housekeeping, three meals per day in a common dining room complemented with snacks and beverage such as tea or coffee available all of the time. The upscale residences will offer movie theatres, exercise facilities, spaces to conduct hobbies and crafts, courtesy vans and in some cases even a happy hour, all coordinated by a person dedicated to providing entertainment opportunities to their clients.
Giving up grocery shopping and the vacuum cleaner are attractive ideas. So what’s holding us back? It is likely the idea of further downsizing. The thought of sacrificing the generous space that we now occupy with a spare guest bedroom, a large dining room suite and other amenities are certainly a factor. However perhaps it is relinquishing much of our independence.
For Elder Orphans at this time of year when those around them are celebrating the holiday season with children and grandchildren, Christmas trees and gifts and festive dinners there doubtless are those among us who must stave off the melancholy feelings while we remember the Christmases of earlier times.
I like to conjure up memories of snowy Christmases with excitement with the anticipation of gifts and even a visit by Santa Claus. I’m still a believer! There was midnight mass too, but one of the memories most cherished was the celebrations at my grandparent’s home when my aunts and uncles and cousins would gather for a dinner of roast turkey with all of the trimmings.
Fortunate are we among the family of Elder Orphans who are remembered by our friends. While they are consumed by preparing for the holidays for their children and grandchildren we are grateful that they remember us and often include us in their celebrations.
Others of us reach out to the larger community and participate in preparing dinners and Christmas events for those who may be less fortunate.
And then there are certainly a few among us who will be isolated and lonely. Perhaps we can find it in our hearts to invite them to our table, especially at this time of the year. It’s a wonderful world. Be kind.
The subject of Last Will and Testament is of particular interest to me since I have personally experienced the consequences of having to deal with this situation when my younger brother passed away a few years ago. Perhaps this story will encourage those who don’t have a will to prepare one and prevent a lot of anguish.
He and I had been estranged for a few years and he lived in Northern Ontario in a community that was about a six hour drive from my home so there were some logistics issues that complicated matters. A couple of his friends took care of the preliminary matters of having a funeral home collect his remains from the hospital, plan for cremation and so on and I confirmed the arrangements.
Winter was setting in and to make matters even more difficult I was recovering from recent open heart surgery that resulted in complications that kept me in the hospital for nearly a month. Recovery was slow and I was in no condition to travel so at least for the first few weeks after his death any duties that were required in his residence were relegated to his friends or postponed.
The first issue that you must come to grips with is that there is nobody in charge. Strictly speaking, there is no one who has the authority to enter the house even if it is to search for a will or evidence that one exists. His friends took it upon themselves to ignore that complication and search the place, and this probably happened before his death was even pronounced.
Although as his only living sibling, I was the obvious person from whom to take direction, nevertheless I repeatedly reminded them that I had no authority over any aspect of the estate, whatever it may be. (His spouse passed away exactly two months before him; our parents are deceased, and there were no dependants.)
So we have an unoccupied home in early winter, no assurance that the heating system will even operate, no knowledge if there is even insurance in place to cover it in the event of a loss, a refrigerator and freezer containing food and other perishables, and no knowledge of whatever else might be in the house that would be damaged if frozen. When his friends made the decision to clear the contents of the place and remove them to their own residence I still had no authority to object, and nor would I under the circumstances.
I asked them to set aside every paper that they found in the home and finally a few weeks later I felt that I would be able to manage the trek to see firsthand what we were dealing with. I visited the home and discovered that nearly everything had been removed laving a few pieces of furniture, some items in the kitchen cabinets and miscellaneous trivial items.
Upon returning home I sifted through the papers and records that they provided. His friends claimed that they found no will and after thoroughly looking in every envelope and piece of paper I found none either.
To mitigate damages to what appeared to be the only asset of any significant value and at my own expense I hired a plumber and authorized him to enter the premises and winterize the water and sewage systems in case there was a power failure. I also contacted the company that had been supplying furnace oil and asked them to continue to ensure that the oil tank was topped up.
To backtrack just a bit, if you die without a will, and nobody comes forward to be named Estate Trustee, the government will appoint one for you. As with an executor in a will, this person will search through your personal effects for any important papers or documents such as insurance policies, make a detailed inventory of your assets, pay any debts, liquidate or manage your assets, apply for any death benefits, and so on. Then finally deal with whatever remains.
The Estate Trustee may hire lawyers, accountants, bookkeepers and anyone else they desire to fulfill their role, and of course they are entitled to a fee for their services. Unless you have a sizeable estate there may not be much left to distribute. So what happens to whatever remains? It is distributed to relatives according to the laws of whatever the jurisdiction of your former residence. Typically, the spouse would inherit first, then children, grandchildren, parents, then nieces and nephews, and so on. If there are no blood relatives, whatever is leftover will probably be claimed by the government. There is an excellent reason to consult a lawyer and make a will.
In Ontario, a logical assumption might be that if there were any assets in the estate, there wouldn’t be much left to be distributed to any heirs so the alternative is to apply to the Superior Court to be appointed the Estate Trustee. This process may take several months to be reviewed and approved. Or not.
There are many obstacles to submitting the application, the largest being that a cheque for the probate fees that would be applicable to the estate is required to be submitted with the application.
Here is where you encounter the hurdles. Without the certificate the bank will not disclose if there is a savings or chequing account let alone sharing if there are any balances in the accounts. Of course they will not disclose if there is a mortgage on the property or the balance remaining or if the mortgage was insured. Financial institutions will not tell you if there are any investments or retirement plans. In short, you cannot retrieve any useful information to help you establish the value of the estate and the probate fees until a few months have passed and the certificate appointing the trustee arrives in the mail.
Fortunately for me the local postmistress who understood my predicament was willing overlook my lack of authority and bend the rules slightly to help me in a small way by forwarding any mail to me.
Although some real estate agents might be helpful in coming up with an approximate value of the property, you cannot sell the property or even list it for sale.
You can of course keep paying the bills for electricity, heating oil, insurance, snow removal and more.
There is a lot more to the story but I hope that my experience will provide to you a glimpse of the mess that dying without a will leaves behind.
Finally as a corollary to the story several weeks after I received the authority to become the estate trustee a will was discovered among the possessions that were kept by his friends. In Ontario as I discovered, a will becomes null and void if the person was married after it was executed. This was the case in my brother’s affairs so the discovery did not change anything but I mention it anyway to illustrate that there are always potential surprises so one needs to cautious and wary.
This brief lecture targets everyone, not specifically elder orphans, nevertheless it is an essential element of all estate plans. I’ll keep it brief.
There was a time when being invited to be an executor of an estate was not something to be feared and avoided, but rather considered an honour and a privilege. However over the years, that has changed drastically and it is definitely not something that I would agree to unless there were really no other options available to the person requesting my help. My only personal experience is in the Province of Ontario but I expect that most other legal jurisdictions are moving in a direction that makes the experience much more daunting.
When appointed as an executor there is a great deal of time consuming work to do and a lot of responsibility and you had better be good at keeping records. Here in my Province of Ontario there was a time when you could simply take your best guess as to the value of the assets in the estate and pay the probate tax. As of January 1st, 2015 the Ministry of Finance wants to see details on all bank accounts, real estate property, vehicles and any other assets. The province also suggests executors contact professional appraisers to make sure the valuations are accurate.
When deciding on an Executor be sure to consider if they have the time and the skill to undertake the work and do they have the personality to negotiate on behalf of your estate. I have heard of situations where major charitable organizations have had their lawyers at the table disputing what share of the deceased assets should be allocated to each of them. These discussions are not for the faint-of-heart. Of course it is assumed that you have complete trust in your choice. Another consideration is where the executor lives. In Ontario the task becomes a great deal simpler if the executor also resides in our province. If you decide on co-executors, at least one of them should live in the same province. Will they be able to get along with other executors if you have decided to name more than one? Will they be fair and loyal to your wishes? Will they out-live you?
Here is a list of the tasks that an Executor must deal with as compiled by the Bank of Montreal. Whomever you select should fully understand the duties and responsibilities that they are signing on for. In this post I have presented the facts as I understand them in my home Province of Ontario. Depending on where you live, your mileage may vary so be sure to investigate the nuances of the regulations in your province or state.
One appealing solution as to how to settle on an executor may be to appoint a person that you trust, then, as co-executor choose a professional organization that has the experience and resources to carry the burden and take on all of the detailed work. They may be expensive however you may be comforted in the knowledge that before any steps can be taken, both parties will need to agree.
Finally, you should talk to the person that you have selected to be your executor to determine that they are interested in assuming the role. They are under no obligation to accept the responsibility. They are however able to hire professionals such as lawyers and accountants to assist them in their duties and whose fees would be covered by the estate. And they are entitled to be paid. It may be a good idea to add those details to the will.