The Death Jackpot

Dear Reader,

It’s just stuff. Material stuff. And after you die, you can’t take it with you.

The most challenging part about the work I do with aging and disabled adults is that it often ends abruptly. Sometimes it feels as though the moment I begin building a good rapport with a client and connecting them with just the right services, nature takes its course and they die. I seal their files and move them to a secluded location in the back of our office, where they’ll likely never be accessed again. It is a simple, but sacred process.

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Dealing with the belongings they’ve left behind however, is complex and usually far from sacred. The ordeal begins after the client’s next of kin is notified of their passing. This usually happens over the phone, and yes, I’ve had to make the call many times. After the next of kin arrives at the facility, they identify the body and begin the process of locating the client’s life insurance policy (if any) and other important documentation. I always want things go smoothly and I hope that we can quickly resolve the client’s move out process.

But people in hell probably want some ice water too. Right?

I’ve witnessed some family fights that rival those on reality TV. And every fight can be directly traced to the fact or belief that the deceased has left behind money and other items of value. As sad as it is for me to admit, I have seen estranged family members go into the deceased’s home, take what they want, then leave without taking care of any other final responsibilities. I’ve also sat with clients who have shared with me their final wishes for their belongings and funeral. I’ve watched some of those same clients die and have none of their wishes fulfilled.

I recall a former client who died after a long term illness. Except for one sister, she had not been in communication with her family. The day that she died, I called her sister and informed her of the sad news. She sounded distraught. Shortly after talking with her, she arrived at our office, angry and demanding a key to her sister’s home. She said she knew her sister kept a stash of money, and she intended to find it. What she did not know was that her sister’s estranged daughter was the legal next of kin, and that she had complete rights to her mother’s belongings. As you can imagine, the situation got ugly. Fast.

You wouldn’t believe how quickly family members, and even friends will lay claim to money and items once a person has died. I don’t know why, but death tends to bring the greed out of people. If you’ve never seen an entire family fight over a $5,000 life insurance policy, then count yourself lucky. You’ve been spared from witnessing a ridiculous, time wasting event.

What am I saying? I’m saying that grief can bring out the worst in people. A person dies, and people behave as though they’ve hit the jackpot. This isn’t something you want to hear, but it’s the truth. Material things are for the living, and the living will be determined to have them. And no, not all families behave this way. There are many who handle final affairs with a quiet dignity that is admirable, considering the circumstances. It’s likely that your family has experienced a loss during your lifetime. Several, perhaps. It’s also likely that you have seen how your family behaves in the face of grief. Those experiences should help to guide your decisions on how to distribute your belongings and plan your final arrangements. And if you’ve got the kind of family who views death as a jackpot, you’d better plan well. You could argue that it doesn’t matter since you won’t be around for the chaos. But I would disagree with you and suggest that a peaceful, organized atmosphere is valuable during a time of loss. Leave peace in your wake.

Keep taking care,

D. Southern

 

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