The moment that I felt utterly incapacitated didn’t happen as I signed the end-of-life paperwork. Nor did it hit me when men from the Richmond County morgue came to take my father away.
The fact that my life had instantly transitioned into a foreign, new reality was finally processed for me when my dad’s business partner showed me around their recycling business—a venture that I knew absolutely nothing about.
Giant Caterpillar machinery peppered the grounds. Workers were busy hauling enormous piles of twisted metal into what appeared to be distinct batches of aluminum, steel and copper.
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And there I stood, wondering how a woman who spent her days moving words around at a media job was going to speed learn how to manage a scrap metal business.
There was also another slight problem: My father had died with no estate plan in place. In fact, he didn’t even have a will.
In hindsight, as mind-numbing and rage-provoking as the last five years have been for me moonlighting as the sole executor of his estate, there are some invaluable lessons that I’ve picked up during the process—ones that have had an impact on my approach to finances and life.
An Otherwise Wise Money Manager
It was the early 1990s, and my father had a rather unusual (and highly risky) proposition for me: How would I feel about having my own AmEx card?
I say risky because I was just a teenager at the time, and my dad was not someone who approached financial decisions lightly—let alone one that involved letting his not-even-old-enough-to-drive teenager tote around plastic that he’d cosigned on.
Ultimately, I suspect that he knew his always-responsible daughter would take the challenge seriously. (And I did.) He also respected the value of lessons learned through personal experience—and was wise to just how important it was to properly build up credit in early adulthood.
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But his overarching goal for me ran much deeper: As his only child, he wanted me to grow up to be a financially savvy woman who could take care of herself.
He must have done something right because I carried this lesson into my adult life, enabling me to buy my first piece of property before the age of 25. Of course, I could never have divined that, years later, it would also come in handy when I’d have to single-handedly tackle his complicated estate.
Actually, complicated would be an understatement, but my father was just that: a highly complicated man. He could be incredibly brilliant when it came to money, yet his ability to master personal relationships teetered on the brink of disaster.
So the fact that he hadn’t conveyed much about his estate to his daughter didn’t surprise me. The fact that he hadn’t thought about it himself did. This brings me to …
Lesson #1: Everyone Should Have an Estate Plan . . . or at Least a Will
Let’s face it: Few of us like to think about death—let alone our own mortality. But having a sit-down with an estate attorney will take up far less time of your free time than the time (and sanity) suck that can be the probate process for your loved ones.
And I should know. In my house, we now refer to life events as either happening pre-Victor or post-Victor. Anything good and joyous typically applies to the pre- phase—before my life essentially imploded after I received that clichéd 3 A.M. call that my father had suffered a subarachnoid hemorrhage. At 54.
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Since then, I have spent what likely amounts to months of my life meeting with sundry lawyers, visiting one too many government offices, juggling endless bureaucratic red tape and having dozens of documents notarized ... and renotarized. (I’ve seriously considered becoming a notary myself!)
And if I thought that writing out check after check to cover endless wedding expenses bordered on the comical, I can tell you that money really adds up when you have a stable of attorneys on retainer. Of course, the little annoyances of untangling an estate can also cost you.
Take my father's electric blue Harley—a bike that I will never drive because I can barely lift it, let alone straddle it long enough to kick-start the thing. You see, my father lost the deed. He also originally bought the bike in Connecticut, but somehow still managed to register it in Virginia. In order for me to transfer it to my name in New York, I had to mail four different notarized documents and a check to both the Connecticut DMV and the Virginia DMV. Have I mentioned that we also never found the keys?
To be fair, there are upsides to being the executor of an estate. Nothing can ever replace my dad, but, in his absence, I am grateful to have these reminders in my life.
But if you take the time to create a smart estate plan, you'll not only extend a courtesy to the important people in your life, but you'll also safeguard hard-earned assets for future generations. It may seem like a no-brainer, but I can’t tell you how many of my friends’ parents don’t even have basic wills—and outright refuse to talk about it.
Case in point: One of my estate attorneys, a father of two, recently confessed to me that he and his wife (also an estate attorney!) don’t have a will.
Depending on how complicated your situation is, you can either hire an estate attorney to help guide you through the process, or draft your own last will and testament using a site like legalzoom.com, which offers the service for a starting rate of just $69.
My own attorney's mind-blowing admission, coupled with my dad's lack of proper planning, inspired me and my husband to draft up a will and an estate plan, which covers everything from naming an executor to electing the lucky soul who'd be tasked with handling my husband's burgeoning art book collection. Since we have no kids, we even drafted a plan for the care of our two spoiled Dachshunds—one of which, I may add, was my dad's dog!
Lesson #2: Adequate Medical Insurance Is a Must
I can't help but be blunt about this: Health insurance—whether you get it through your company or you find a plan for independent contractors and freelancers—is indeed a good thing to have.
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According to a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey, during the first nine months of 2012:
- 45.3 million people of all ages were uninsured
- 57.5 million had been uninsured for at least part of the year prior to the survey
- 33.8 million had been uninsured for more than a year at survey time
My father, unfortunately, fell into the last category. Since he'd just started his latest venture a little over a year before his death, he hadn’t yet gotten around to picking up a policy for himself—likely because he was too busy launching said business. I also suspect that it was partly my dad being my dad: Fearless to a fault, he never thought something bad would happen to him. And if it did, he’d just take care of it.
And then he had a brain aneurysm rupture—a situation that ultimately landed him in the neurological intensive care unit.
After my father passed away, I spent about a year freelancing, while dealing with his estate on a nearly full-time basis—and not once during that time did I even consider letting my health coverage lapse. (If you're in a similar situation, check out our resource for finding non-employer-sponsored coverage: How to Get Health Insurance When Work Doesn't Cover It.) Once you've seen first-hand the implications that can accompany a serious health crisis sans health insurance, you're not willing to take that gamble. At least, I wasn't.
Lesson #3: Mental Breaks Trump Burgeoning Bank Accounts
My father was a numbers guy. He got his kicks from devising novel ways to make money. Sometimes they were successful, sometimes not so much. The bottom line is that he had that inherent entrepreneurial spark.
It was a trait I always admired, even when I thought his brainstorms were a little wild … like the time he told me that people would be using vegetable oil to power farm equipment. I decided that he’d finally lost his mind, and then about ten years later, I read a magazine piece on this new, alternative fuel source fashioned from old cooking oil. OK, Dad, you were right.
But here’s the thing: Yes, making money is the key to ensuring that you are protected in the today, as well as tomorrow. (Read: retirement.) But you also have to allocate some time to enjoy the product of your hard work in the here and now.
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In my father's case, when I unearthed his passport and credit card statements as I was cleaning out the contents of his home, I discovered that he'd taken only one vacation in something like four years. It wasn't because he didn't have the resources—he was simply too swept up in accumulating those resources.
I imagine that his intention was to squirrel away as much as possible for those far-off golden years, but that's the funny thing about life—things don't progress in a by-the-book, linear path. And neither, it seems, do the pearls of wisdom that we glean from our parents.
Of all the money lessons that my father taught me, the one that resonates the most for me, he gifted to me in death: You really can’t take it with you when you go.