3 Money Lessons That My Dad Taught Me … in Death

Liz Ozaist

lessons my dad taught me in deathThe 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.

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 …

  • Marie

    First off, I would like to express my condolences for your loss. My father passed away suddenly earlier this year and left a similarly convoluted situation with no will – and he was an attorney. These are wise lessons to learn, though I sincerely wish you didn’t have to experience this. Every adult needs to have a will and have their paperwork in order. Otherwise, they are leaving a mess for their surviving loved ones that can take many years to sort out.

    • ridgerunner

      Not every adult needs to have a will, but every adult needs to have a good estate plan, which may just mean making sure beneficiary forms and TOD designations are in place.

  • Sherry

    Liz & Marie – My condolences to both of you. I lost my dad in January after a 2 year battle with lung cancer. During that time, discussion of wills and estate planning came up often, and Dad’s answers were always, “Your mom can do whatever she wants.” and “She knows what I want.” Mom finally did call a lawyer about writing up a will but was told that since all of their assets were in both of their names, a will was unnecessary. Hello?! What about after Mom passes?

    The lesson that I’ve learned from my parents’ situation is that despite their reassurances, our parents may not be as financially saavy as they’d like us to believe. For instance, mine thought that the surviving spouse would get his/her social security check, plus at least part of the deceased’s. So Mom was surprised to learn that she’s only entitled to hers since it’s the larger of the two. It’s like turning back the clock 40+ years when Mom had to stretch Dad’s sole Navy paycheck to cover all of our bills and living expenses. I know she can do it but I hate that she has to…

  • Steve Booth

    Having been involved with several estates either as a resource or executor, I’d say that you need a will, a letter of instructions and a document saying where all of the assets are… complete with usernames and passwords. Assets also being that person’s e-mail(s). You’re going to need them. 401(k)s and IRAs should specify the beneficiary. They don’t go through probate.

  • B

    As a Notary Public, you can’t notarize your own documents.

  • http://www.facebook.com/maryanne.cullen.1 MaryAnne Cullen

    I am also dejunking as much as possible so as to make it simpler for my children. We have a great will and estate plan as we have 9 children and don’t want fighting.

  • CTwildheart

    I bring this up every Thanksgiving. My family calls me morbid – but I just want them all to be prepared. When my Dad passed away he had no will and I was the executor. I learned the hard way…even if you have little – make a will!

  • Patty

    This author makes some fine points, I just wish she wouldn’t do it in such a patronizing and self-aggrandizing manner. I came here looking for information in advance of a parent’s impending death and I have to say that this article’s self-congratulatory, elitist overtones are off-putting to those of us who are truly struggling. It’s my opinion this site would do well to employ stricter editorial controls –– in particular, those that would allow the widest possible audience to experience the benefits of this important information.