Why a will is crucial: Leigh’s story

Why a will is crucial: Leigh’s story

I talk a lot about having open, ‘onist’ conversations about money and the peace of mind that comes with getting everything in order for your family’s sake. It’s not what I’d call a ‘fun’ topic, but I’m starting to see more and more that it’s irresponsible not to plan for the unexpected – we all need to prepare so that if something ever happens to us, those we love are prepared to deal with it legally and financially.

What reinforced for me just how important end of life planning is? One of Onist’s users, Leigh, recently shared her story with me and I just had to share it further, with you:

Leigh: “There is only ONE thing I wish I could have done before my sister passed away – have her will and Power of Attorney drawn up.  Everyone needs to have this done and I can’t stress enough how important this is after what I went through with my sister.

In the summer of 2006, my twin sister wasn’t feeling well. She lived outside Washington and I lived in Ottawa, but we were very close and talked and emailed daily. I urged her to go to a doctor but doctors weren’t her thing so she didn’t go for a check-up.

When she came home to Ottawa for Christmas later that year, it was apparent she was quite ill. She still refused to see a doctor, and at the end of January 2007, I received a terrifying call from her local hospital that she’d been brought to their emergency room and diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer.

I flew down to see her when she was discharged to try and figure out what was going on. She was a very independent person having lived in the US away from our family for almost a dozen years.  I tried to talk her into coming back to Canada so we could be close by to care for her but she was determined to stay where she was – she had a life, a job, friends, her condo and she didn’t want to leave it all behind.

Every 6 weeks I would fly back to help her but it was difficult because I was married with a family and a job that I needed, but I did my best.  Every time I saw her I tried to remind her she needed a will or the State would take everything she owned. She was adamant that she wanted everything to come to me after her death and she didn’t need a will in writing – that was the end of the discussion. I couldn’t get her to see reason and neither could her friends. I dropped this line of discussion and just did what I needed to take care of her when I was there.

At the beginning of July, I got another call from the hospital that she had been brought in again and they couldn’t let her go home by herself. I took an indefinite leave of absence from my work and flew down not knowing how long I’d be there but knowing this would be my last visit.

On this last visit, I tried pushing the idea of a will again and even offered to pay for a lawyer to come to her but again she didn’t think it was necessary. At this point it no longer mattered to me what happened to her “stuff”, I needed to concentrate on looking after her.

For the next two months, I drove her to and from chemo and doctor’s appointments, I paid thousands of dollars for her prescriptions and paid her bills from my own money. I had no access to her financials and because she didn’t have the legally necessary Power of Attorney form completed, I had to pay out of my pocket.

She passed away at the end of August and I made arrangements at our expense again to have her cremated and brought back to Canada.  Her girlfriend and I spent 2 entire days and nights cleaning the food out of her condo, destroying her personal papers, making arrangements to have her mail forwarded to me in Canada, and on the 3rd day I walked out of her condo, locked the door, locked her car in the parking lot and flew home.

I left my address with her neighbours who were going to keep an eye on her car and condo and let me know what happened.

When I got home to Ottawa, I contacted an estate lawyer in Virginia. I explained the situation and that my husband and I had no money left to pay them but that we could work out a payment schedule once her belongings were sold and they agreed. But within a couple of weeks, their office started sending me invoices for services which they advised were necessary for the courts so I had to drop the case.

As of the day she died, I stopped paying her bills out of our own accounts, but I spent the better part of the next 2 years mailing out death certificates and form letters I had drawn up advising all her creditors that she had passed away. Many sent collectors after me but I fortunately wasn’t liable for her debts and eventually the calls stopped. The Sheriff eventually towed her car away about 6 months after she died and took possession of it (even though it was fully paid) when I did not pay more to have the required permits renewed. It was about a year before the bank stepped in and took over her condo – that seemed like such a long time to let everything sit after I advised the bank of her death.

I never went back and while I was there I didn’t remove anything from the condo as I wanted to be able to say in all honesty that I did what I felt was required of me by law.

One of her condo neighbours called me to say that whoever took over her condo on behalf of the bank foreclosure had put one of those large garbage bins in the parking lot and was throwing out everything out – the place was gutted.

At the end of it her car was probably worth a few thousand dollars, her condo at that time was worth approximately $200,000.00, she owned some antiques, a fabulous old Victrola in working condition and a large collection of records that still worked as well as china, crystal, glassware and furniture that a normal 53 year old would have accumulated in life – all of which went to complete strangers or into the garbage.

It’s been over 10 years now since she passed away and every once in a while something rears its ugly head like a US bank wanting me to close out and claim her account, but after 6 months and mounds of paperwork I am always denied access because there was no will or probate, so now I just ignore these calls and letters.

I can’t repeat enough how the most important thing anyone can do is prepare their will and Power of Attorney so their family isn’t left with the same mess, chaos and expenses that we were.”