April 2016 charity and estate newsletter

As some of you know, my mom has spent the last few years fighting breast cancer, and she passed away in mid February. I’ve been off for a few weeks (and I do apologize for the lack of a newsletter in this time period!), helping my father, whose own health has been shaky at best.  We often talk about estate planning in textbook terms – but nothing can prepare you for it like life.

A few estate-settlement and end-of-life things my family has learned:

  1. Make sure everyone knows where important government documents are stored and make sure more than one key person can access them.In my mother’s last few months at home, we suspect the cancer may have spread to her brain, leading to some odd behaviour.In particular, she felt the need to move her wedding certificate, driver’s license and other key documents to some very odd places. We needed the wedding certificate to transfer her CPP and pension plan assets to Dad. As it turned out, she had moved it to a drawer in the basement (along with underwear, socks and some kitchenware). We spent hours looking for it, only to find it by accident.

    We still can’t find mom’s wedding ring. She took it off just before going to hospice. While in the bigger scheme of the estate these seem like small issues, they can be very distressing for a family dealing with the emotional distress of losing a loved one.

    **Updated note:  We finally found her ring about 8 months after I wrote this article!

  1. Online-only banking can be problematic when it comes to transferring accounts. Mom had a portion of her assets with an online-only bank. After a month, $60 in registered mail and a lot of time on hold, we were finally able to transfer her accounts. Brick-and-mortar financial institutions can almost always settle these transfers in a matter of hours and with minimal hassle.
  2. Don’t assume that your power of attorney (POA) and executor documents are easily shared between bank branches. We dealt with an institution that is usually very good at handling these issues.  Despite this, when we had to access the accounts from the branch near the hospice, they were unable to find the POA details on their system.  It’s always best to have a paper copy when you need something done urgently.
  3. Don’t wait too long to set up POA access if a family member is ill. Before we had the original POAs in hand, mom tried to get information on her credit card accounts over the phone.  Unfortunately, due to the medications and other effects of her disease, she wasn’t able to answer the security questions and she hung up in frustration.  This resulted in some late payments on her accounts because we had no way of knowing what the balances were.
  4. Save and print a list of important email contacts. Mom kept in touch with many of her friends around the world via email. When she moved into hospice, we brought a laptop; however, her desktop computer had the email contacts stored on it. As a result, we couldn’t easily put her in touch with her friends unless they emailed her first.
  5. Be prepared for some strange requests. In her last few weeks, mom kept insisting she needed large quantities of cash on hand. The hospice (and our family) was very uncomfortable having a patient keep cash in the facility. Trust officer friends of mine confirmed this is a surprisingly common end-of-life situation which they often encounter. Finding ways to deny such requests for cash, while maintaining dignity for all involved was far trickier than we imagined – but very important to protect mom, and to protect the hospice staff from any risk of liability.
  6. Review your beneficiary designations on a regular basis. We found one account which did not have a properly designated beneficiary four months before mom died.  Fortunately, she still had the capacity to sign a beneficiary change form, as a POA cannot alter beneficiary designations.

At the end of the day, our family owes an immense debt of gratitude to the wonderful people at St. Joseph Hospice here in London, without whom I cannot imagine how we would have survived the last few months. We’re also grateful for the planning work we did in the last few years to minimize the difficulty of settling mom’s estate when the time finally came. Despite the challenges above, we managed to settle 99.9 per cent of her estate within a month. I’m extremely grateful for the wisdom gained from the many fine professionals in law, accounting, financial planning, banking and trusts that I’ve worked with over the years.