Your gain: Understand how to cope emotionally with dealing with an estate, taxes, medical bills, or legal barriers in relation to the death of a loved one. You’ll gain perspective on how to move forward these difficult, emotionally taxing processes with as much patience, grace, and peace as possible.
Why Address Legal Barriers
I wanted to touch on this subject because it’s something I’ve been through personally. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention it and acknowledge how absolutely brutal this can be.
But let’s set all of the technical, legal things aside for a moment.
I want to talk about how awful dealing with an estate, a deceased loved one’s final tax return, bills of any kind (medical, you name it), or any other kind of legal barrier can feel on top of what you’re already dealing with.
As if going through a loss isn’t brutal enough—and I mean either the loss of a loved one or a secondary loss like a divorce—added stress and obstacles can cause so much anxiety and negativity to the entire situation that’s already heavy enough. I mean, we just suffered a loss, right?! As grievers we’re thinking, we don’t need this on top of it!
Why Legal Hurtles (and more) Are Difficult
These processes can prolong an already heartbreaking, heart-wrenching process. Just to give you a little context to my own experience as an example, there have been multiple things I had to deal with after a parent loss.
One was my mom’s medical bills. I can’t even tell you the massive amount of bills that had surfaced from my mom’s treatments, hospital visits, ambulance rides, doctor’s appointments, you name it. Without going into a lot of detail here, because this really isn’t about me or my financial woes at the time, ONE hospital bill—just one—was over $200,000. So my mom had just died, this responsibility all completely fell onto my dad to deal with. And, somewhat directly to me at the time, because his health wasn’t 100% either.
On that note, if a parent dies, their debt doesn’t necessarily transfer to their surviving spouse or children. The person’s estate—the property they owned—is responsible for their remaining debt. However, please understand that this is COMPLETELY situational and could vary if some joint loans, like that of a car or house, exist.
But do be aware of filial responsibility laws. These are laws that require the adult child to repay any unpaid medical bills that the parent or their estate can’t cover. Many states don’t impose them, but there have been cases in the past where hospitals and nursing homes sued adult children in order to be paid.
Do Your Research
This isn’t meant to scare you or worry you AT all. It’s simply me imploring you to do the research thoroughly—especially depending on your state—if you’re ever in these shoes. All I can say is my dad did some INCREDIBLE work to ensure this wasn’t passed down to me. That as much of it was forgiven from the hospitals or creditors as possible before he died.
I did have to do some more work after he died, no doubt. But that $200,000 bill? Completely forgiven. They might make you work for it, don’t get me wrong. There might be paperwork you have to fill out or provide proof of things or whatever this entails, but I promise it might be possible if you find yourself in those shoes.
That all being said, I want to recognize how absolutely awful this is to have to deal with on top of a death when you’re already SO profoundly sad and hurting without your loved one. I can empathize with you if you’re there right now. Financial stress and pressure can make its way into other aspects of our life, like our marriages or relationships of any kind. It certainly did with me.
There were times where I believe this underlying anxiety showed up in how I treated my husband. Or, I put my armor on and was very “me against the world” because no one could understand my pain. It was just something I had to internalize and deal with on top of grieving. More to come on that and how to ease ourselves out of that state of mind.
Another scenario I wanted to present to you is that of a probate process. What’s probate, you might ask? Probate is the process completed when a decedent leaves assets to distribute, such as bank accounts, real estate, and financial investments. Probate is the general administration of a deceased person’s will or the estate of a deceased person without a will.
An executor is commonly named in the will—or an administrator, if there is no will—to complete the probate process. This involves collecting the deceased’s assets to pay any remaining liabilities on their estate and distributing the assets to beneficiaries.
The Ever-Important Trust
Now, as an only child one might think that if I’m the only person listed in my parent’s will, which I was, no one could potentially try and claim anything. Everything would go to me, right? Especially by that definition I just shared.
Wrong, very wrong. My parents were incredibly intelligent people. I have zero doubt that if they–especially my dad, since he passed second—had known that everything would need to be in a trust for me to avoid probate, they would have done that. But that wasn’t the case. I wasn’t listed as the beneficiary on a couple of financial accounts. In this case, at least in California which is where I live and is where all of this was done, a trust was necessary in order to avoid probate.
I can’t express to you how profoundly stressed out, confused, and absolutely lost I was. And up until very recently, too, because this process JUST ended. To top it off, we started things off with one lawyer to have to end up parting ways with them a little ways into the process. We lost at least six months with that detour.
Dealing with my parent’s Certified Public Accountant—who, while generally rather nice, is a touch condescending at times. Especially when I didn’t fully understand something. I felt so unprepared, uneducated, and silly for asking various questions at times. More on this below!
Don’t even get me started on all of the money this can cost. Between legal fees and having to pay money out of the estate, and then that CPA I mentioned because I had to do my mom’s final tax return. Then my dad’s final, then the estate’s final, and now ANOTHER one because some things weren’t settled by year-end… so it’s now going into another tax year. The financial toll this takes on not only our accounts but our poor, grieving minds can be so, so difficult. If you’ve experienced anything like this, please know I see you so deeply right now.
Financial obligations or things that come up can be INCREDIBLY stressful and worrisome. I know I touched on this already a little while back so I don’t want to dwell on this too long here. But I certainly can’t under-express the importance. Having to cope with this anxiety and pressure day in and day out is so intense when you’re trying to grieve a loss. And, financial pressures can be some of the highest causes of stress in adults.
In fact, a study from the American Psychological Association (APA) says 65% of respondents said money is a significant source of stress. I mean really, journeying through grief or not, money can be stressful, right? It’s no surprise that when we add a loss on top of this. Which, can be absolutely terrible and traumatizing in and of itself. We can find ourselves in a really dark place.
The Legal Process
It took two and a half years to settle my parents estate and hurtle over these legal barriers. Over two years of feeling confused and so dumb when it came to understanding legal jargon and what the heck I was even signing half the time. It made me feel small and unintelligent. Over two years I worried about how I was going to add ANY money into savings with the bills I had to continue paying over and over again. Over two years of waiting on the courts and probate referee and lawyer and ALL the things.
Things To Remember
Since I can’t have one on one time with you right now and give you the biggest virtual hug, I can’t understand what legal barriers or situation you might be in right now. Maybe you’re not in one currently. Lord knows I hope you’re not having to deal with something like this right now! But if you are, or if you happen to find yourself there one day, WHATEVER it is, I want to remind you of a few things.
You Will Come Out Of This
First and foremost, you WILL come out of this. Whatever legal “battle” you’re in right now, so to speak. Not to be dramatic, but that’s what it feels like some days, it will end one day. More than likely, in most situations, this will not be your life forever. But yes, it could take a long time and get very drawn out. Sadly, sometimes, it’s par for the course when it comes to a loss.
Ask Questions (and don’t feel silly!)
I want you to hear this loud and clear if this is something you’re worried about or ever struggle with: you are NOT silly for asking any kind of question. You are not a lawyer or CPA or whoever you’re dealing with. You’re not an expert on the subject matter, so how are you expected to know these things?
No matter how complicated the legal jargon is or whatever it is you might not be understanding, ask questions. It’s literally their job, their obligation, to answer those for you and break it down for you. They are required to do so in a way you can understand.
Why Questions Are Important
Honestly, it’s too important NOT to understand because you want each and every decision and thing you’re signing in the process to be completely clear to you. They should be available for support and questions to make you as confident and clear on everything as possible. They’re the experts for a reason, right? We’re not subject matter experts on this stuff, they are. Part of what we might have to pay them is for their legal advice, guidance, and expertise. Take full advantage and get that money’s worth!
I promise you, you’re not the only person they’ve come into contact with that might have a hard time understanding what the heck is going on. It’s probably not the only time they’ve ever gotten whatever questions you’re asking, and it won’t be the last. Don’t ever be ashamed. You are not being silly or stupid or asking too many things.
AND, you’re grieving on top of it! Grief brain might be a factor. You might not be fully focused, and you might not even WANT to be fully focused because you just want to get out of there. All of this can be extremely triggering. Please, be kind to yourself and keep these things in mind as you’re going through it.
You Don’t Learn This Legal Stuff in School
This leads me to my next point, which is a thought I had countless times throughout this process… I can’t even tell you. That thought was: “wow, they don’t teach you this in school.” Can you relate to that?
There’s no “how to lose a parent or child or sibling or loved one 101”. There are honestly SO few resources out there when it comes to coping with and handling something in the legal space alongside a death. It’s something I realized very quickly. Although I had some supportive family and friends who wished me well through my “difficult time”, no one really knew what to do or say.
It was always, “well, better check with the lawyer, go ahead and ask the lawyer, we’re not sure.” Which, hey, was valid! I’d rather someone say that to me than guide me down the wrong path when they don’t really know, right?
You’re Not Alone
Lastly, I feel like I can’t say this enough. Having to endure something like this—ESPECIALLY a process that’s long or complicated, confusing, emotionally taxing and difficult—can feel very unfair on top of what you’ve already lost. If you’re feeling knocked down or beaten up by this process right now, please know you’re not alone and so many of us have been where you are.
I don’t say that to take away from anything you’re going through right now, your process is entirely your own. But there ARE those of us that can empathize. When I threw this topic out to the larger Losses Become Gains community, you wouldn’t believe the feedback I received from other people who have been going through something like this, too, for a variety of family members.
It IS a really unfair thing to have to go through, let’s just own that together right now! It’s a sad part of life and the legal process often isn’t easy or straightforward or kind.
Listen, I’m certainly no lawyer so I’m going to tell you what my friends and family said to me. Best to ask someone who knows when it comes to the technical stuff here. But if you need someone to lean on who can be there for you in a more substantial way, you have a friend in me. I welcome that conversation with open arms if you need to talk it out. I can share what I’ve learned and what I do know. Or, direct you to some excellent resources.
Set Your Family Up for Success
I also just have to put this PSA out there because I’d be remiss if I didn’t. If you’re in a place where you still have a parent (or two), and their valuables and finances and everything they have aren’t in a trust… I IMPLORE you. I actually almost beg of you, to help them get that set up. Oh my gosh, if I could only go back. It’s crazy to think I would have had to go through none of what I did had that just been done.
All of the time, stress, energy, emails back and forth with the lawyer, the money, all of it. Never would have happened. I could have so much more painlessly processed my parent’s deaths without this looming over my head.
Yes, it does cost some money to set up a trust. This really depends on how much so I don’t want to give any kind of range here. Just do your research. And listen, I know finances might make this hard or impossible. But if it IS doable, or between multiple people it could be paid for and set up, please… don’t hesitate to do this. It will release SO much stress from your life and the lives of anyone that might also be included in someone’s will. Same thing if children are in the picture, ensure they’re set up properly.
Take It a Day at a Time
I want to end this with my best advice: like anything in grief, take it one day at a time. One conversation with the lawyer or CPA or whoever this is for you. Process that, make sure you understand it all, and then onto the next. Whatever task you have to do to move things forward, that’s what you do. One at a time. Same thing with bills. Just focus on what’s in front of you right now, and surrender the rest.
I know this is difficult what I’m about to say, but try and remain positive. I wish I had been a little more during the process. It’s much easier for me to say now being on the other side of it. However, I definitely got a bit too caught up in it some days and took it out on loved ones.
Flow at that higher frequency as much as you can. KNOW beautiful things are all around you and coming your way. Don’t doubt that things won’t work out eventually. Do your best to see that, albeit vague, light at the end of this seemingly endless tunnel.
Be Your Own Advocate
Don’t doubt the process, just be your own advocate and do your due diligence if there’s something you’re not understanding. Think of it as a learning opportunity, right? So perhaps YOU can maybe help and guide others one day as I’m doing here. If only I had the help I’m hoping to provide people like you back in the day… I would have handled my stress and emotions differently. Lord knows I 100% had some breakdowns during this process. Full on crying seshes where I felt SO helpless and like I had nowhere to turn.
The two people I need most to lean on are gone.
It can feel incredibly isolating and lonely. Like there’s little to no light at the end of this deep, endless tunnel. But I’m here to tell you today there is, because I—and so many others out there—have survived it.
Whether this be all of these financial and legal barriers we just talked about or just the darkest parts of your grief and your emotions, remember one thing. There is hope all around us, and brighter days if we can let them in. Our loved ones are all around us, and even more healing and peace is coming your way. You don’t have to wait until all this madness is over to tap into that, either.. You just have to be open to it and surrender to it.
Get Your Freebie From Me
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