The shock and devastation were immediate. Dad was only 63—it wasn’t fair! He was a fourth generation farmer, a church elder, a great bear of a man, and the greatest encourager of both me and Mom. He believed in us so much that to believe he was gone felt impossible. “It’s not fair” continued to be my silent mantra on the six–hour flight from New Jersey to Oregon, but as we all know, and as Dad himself was apt to rhetorically ask, “Who ever said life was fair?”
Who I really worried about, however, was my mother, Margaret. They’d been married for 43 years and the only time I could ever remember them being apart was during the months while her mother Eunice experienced the excruciating decline of a losing battle against bone cancer. My mother stayed by my grandmother’s side continually, acting as her primary caregiver, while Dad and I would visit on the weekends.
Other than that, they were inseparable. They built their small produce stand from the ground up together, expanded onto forty acres of end user and “U–pik” produce, and in all farmed over 300 acres and were staples of the community. Dad, known as “Uncle Don” by all who knew him, had a booming, persuasive personality and Mom had the big, genuine laughter and sparkling eyes to set it off. They ate meals together, watched TV in the evenings, were always at the ready to help family members or help round up loose cows, were leaders in Oregon farming associations, and volunteered for church and community events whenever they could. But for all that closeness, proximity and otherwise, what truly wasn’t fair was the way in which Don wasn’t prepared—and hadn’t prepared my mother––to handle the family finances, business or personal.
Margaret described in the light of retrospect, “There are three elements: your family/personal life; your business life, especially if it’s a “Mom and Pop” type business; and the third element is the mixture of the first two, and that’s where the real difficulty comes from. Then you get the law mixed in and you’ve really got a mess.”
Each state and county has laws as to how finances and the passing of debt are handled when death occurs. Familiarizing yourself with these local laws is crucial, especially if there isn’t a current will or trust in place, or if there are unsecured loans to consider.
Like all of us, even with its inevitability, Donald wasn’t planning to die; he was too dang busy for that kind of thing. But it happened, and if he had planned for it, it would have been a big help. As an example, Don hadn’t looked at his will since my birth, let alone put any other end of life plans in place, so that dated and sparse paper was all we had to go on––luckily the instructions were very basic. Still, in that will, which had never been examined by a lawyer, my birthday was off by a year. The typo was an easy fix with witnesses present and a notary public, but this is exactly the kind of mistakes that can potentially spell disaster if in the right (wrong) place or if having to do with actual financial data.
“Farming’s a crap shoot,” my father once told a reporter who’d stopped to interview him about the sea of sunflowers he’d planted across from the store––many of which went to care homes. Though being a farmer is an occupation most are born into, don’t be quick to disassociate—its gambles are much the same as any small, family run business. There are tricks and methods to maximize profits, some including risky periods of fantastic debt and/or taking on unsecured loans. These were the ins and outs that Margaret was in the dark about.
Though Margaret worked with Don every day, shared expenses, and made many big purchasing decisions together, both of them had a silent agreement that Don handled the finances and, since money is such a hot tempered topic for the best of us, Margaret trusted him and went with the cash flow, so to speak.
Unfortunately, it’s this common lack of communication between partners that haunts the surviving spouse. Taxes, loans against property, lines of credit, dice rolled and lost on crops that fell under the sword of weather, the lack of Social Security funds being paid into Margaret or Donald’s retirement funds—to learn the depth of these “secrets” while mourning the love of your life is a harsh piece of reality to digest. Confusion and rattling thoughts are the least of its symptoms, as Margaret has to wonder now how—if—she can afford to retire in another short year and a half.
I asked my mother if she had any advice for other women, or men, who might find themselves in the same position. She first made it clear that she felt that we could “advise” until we’re blue in the face. The problem being, people already know they should be well informed and prepared for death or the death of their partner, but it’s not something most are willing to face until too late. But when you are ready to face the realities of death and have a frank conversation, she did offer suggestions. Like start early.
“Just because you’re’only’ 55, you still need to get your estate planned,” she says. “We can tell you and tell you and tell you—everybody tells you to do it, but everybody wants to put it off. If you have a small business, it’s just as important to think about this as it would be if you were employed by someone else.” Excellent point—being your own boss can be so time/life consuming that treating yourself as a valued employee can take a back seat. It’s ironic, but when it comes to caring for ourselves (as many caregivers will attest), we tend to place ourselves at the bottom of the list. “I’ll get to that,” we think, and then the bell tolls.
“You have to plan ahead because there are so many details that have to be looked at, like whose name is the checkbook under? If one party dies, can the other use the account?,” Margaret continued. “Everyone needs to have a credit or debit card in his or her own name, so that they can get to the funds if necessary without having to go through probate. However, know your state laws. Each state is different—in some, everything automatically goes to the spouse, debt or money.”
“How things are done at the bank is how it works out” Margaret advised, “A CPA can help crunch numbers, but what you’ll really need is a lawyer, and you need to know what’s going on at the bank before you even get that far.”
“Just as with divorce, some states are equal and some states are not, so you need to look into your state laws to see what planning exactly needs to occur.”
And that’s, of course, the rub. It is difficult to get our minds around something as intangible as our own mortality matched with the stacks of politics and bureaucracy that come along for the ride. Yet tuning it out is a disservice to yourself, your partner, and your heirs. I could never feel ill will toward my dad, but I have learned from his mistakes, just as he and mom taught me to learn from my own.
Since Don was the only signer on the business’s debt, Margaret wasn’t liable, but a lawyer still had to intervene to confirm it, and those hours upon hours of time with a good attorney added up to money, money, money.
Long story short:
Work with a certified elder law attorney so that you know your rights, your options, and your long–range finances.
Read up on state laws (a simple internet search will start the ball rolling).
Proofread your will, go over it with the lawyer, and, if it differs from your spouse’s will, be familiar with theirs as well.
See how much of your moneys earned are being paid into taxes and toward social security. This is especially important when running a small business or where any 1099 (freelance/contract) work is being done.
Have individual bank accounts. Having a joint account for household expenses and shared monies is a great asset, but it’s best if both parties have their own accounts in case something happens to the other, especially if involved in separate business ventures.
Talk to your bank(s) about joint account/loan liabilities and how best to protect yourselves via their institution’s practices and under state laws. And as Margaret sagely laid it out, “There’s just no gospel truth federally. Set aside a day and just go. Once it’s done, it’s done.”
Mary has a deep passion for creating meaningful content related to aging. Raised on a dairy farm in Sherwood, Oregon, in a community where elders were respected and revered, she is currently pursuing continued education in the field of gerontology.