A new client was recently referred to me by her friend and neighbor due to concern that her friend’s affairs were not in order. The client and her husband are in their late 80s. The husband recently suffered a fall, leading to a series of medical problems from which he was not expected to recover. This couple has no children and only a few living relatives on the husband’s side. After canceling several appointments, we finally were able to meet on a Sunday morning. It very quickly became obvious that the meeting was long overdue as there were piles of mail and papers on every surface.
The immediate concern was to help my client determine her assets and liabilities and her income and expenses since her husband had always handled these matters. She wanted to know what bills she had to pay and what money she hada to pay them. While this was important, I was more concerned with knowing who needed to be contacted if (when) something happened to this lady or her husband, whether they had valid end-of-life documents and where the originals were kept, and what their wishes were for after their deaths and whether they had prearranged or prepaid for them.
While I was working with my client on these matters on that recent Sunday morning, and before we had made much headway, the phone rang. It was the care center calling to inform the wife that her husband had passed away. This began a whirlwind of activity. At my client’s request, I remained in the home searching for documents while a neighbor took her to the care center. While at the care center, my client became ill and was transported and admitted to the hospital for several days.
The waiting had now begun. While I was able to find certain documents such as the husband’s will, I could not find a valid health care surrogate appointment or power of attorney naming anyone other than the deceased husband to make financial and medical decisions for the wife. I also could not locate any prearrangements or evidence of prepayment for a funeral. Fortunately, the attorney who had drafted the husband’s will ten years previously still appeared to be in practice, so I was able to leave a voice mail at his office alerting him to the husband’s death. I was also able to contact the few remaining members of the husband’s family since I had been able to get their names from the wife before the fateful call came in. Armed with their names, I was able to locate contact information in the couple’s phone book that was buried under a mountain of junk mail on the kitchen table.
Here’s where it became really challenging. The wife was in the hospital, unable to make decisions for her own care or her husband’s funeral and burial. The husband’s family wanted to proceed with laying him to rest, not knowing how long it would be before the wife could act. However, in the absence of the wife’s power of attorney and health care proxy documents naming someone other than her husband, the funeral home would not allow arrangements to proceed. The next step will likely be for the husband’s family to file with the Court for a guardian to be appointed for the wife and the guardian would then be able to proceed with arrangements.
The sad part about this real life case study is that it could have been avoided. If only the couple had pre-arranged and/or pre-paid for their funerals. If only there were valid end-of-life documents in place for the wife. If only the wife hadn’t cancelled those appointments with me and we’d started the process sooner. If only.