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October-November 2023

Forging Ahead


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Don't Leave a Mess!

By Bill and Brenda Evans


There are messes. Then there are BIG messes. A big mess is what our friend Angus left for us to clean up when he died, and we became co-executors of his estate.

Angus died early one afternoon following a brief illness. A relative called a funeral home, then us; handed us a copy of Angus’ burial contract; and insisted we take it from there. That night, moments before closing time, we were at a department store deciding on appropriate clothes for Angus. No family member would do it, or plan funeral and burial services, so we did.

Soon enough, his lawyer told us Angus named four heirs. He gave us a copy of the will and keys to his property. Angus had planned some things well. In addition to a valid will, burial contract, and cemetery plot, he left titles to his property, previous tax returns, insurance documents, medical records, and bank accounts including a payable-on-death account for us executors to clean up final bills. He left his mother’s cedar chest with family pictures, memorabilia, and family letters. All were accessible to us. Good.

But all was not well. Angus’ financial documents were incomplete and confusing. He had more than a dozen investments to settle (some with missing paperwork), which required crazy hours on the phone, trips to the lawyer, and bigger piles of paperwork. Also, he owned a 2,800 square-foot home, a pickup truck, 20 acres of land, and two large outbuildings stuffed to the gills with discarded furniture, tools, farm implements, pots and pans, broken lamps, old newspapers and magazines, and a gazillion unlabeled boxes and bags of what could only be called junk.

Angus had also hinted to heirs that he kept a stash of money hidden “for emergencies.” The heirs quickly let us know we should carefully comb through everything. Find that cash was the implication. We tediously grubbed through every box and bag, every nook and cranny. We found a stash of cash in the back of a closet in the pocket of an old pair of jeans—ten $100 dollar bills. When you clean out the house of the dead, check everywhere. One woman we know hid bills in her book collection!

For 20 long months, we worked on settling Angus’ estate. We kept meticulous notes and records on all we did as reports to the lawyer and heirs. In addition to the legal business of probate court, bank accounts, final medical bills, credit cards, Social Security, investments, and other legal odds and ends, two tax seasons came during those twenty months, so we made tax filings for the year of his death and the next year—a final estate return.

In the meantime, we tackled the physical work of emptying the house and outbuildings to sell—a monumental ordeal. The heirs decided not to have an estate sale, so each came in cars and trucks and took away memorabilia and household items—whatever they wanted and with no plan for equitably dividing things. Obviously, his property was their property. But we heard things like, “Angus told me I could have that,” followed by a brief dispute, eye-rolling, and finally, unhappy acquiescence. One heir told us the other three no longer spoke to him.

Angus was a hoarder. We donated loads of good furniture and clothing to charities and Angus’ friends. Deep piles of junk went into three roll-off containers. The day all the buildings were cleared was a day of jubilation. Next, we hired painters, repairmen, and inspectors and contracted a real estate agent.

From our experiences with Angus’ estate and three others we have settled, we offer several suggestions for avoiding a mess (though we won’t pretend to cover everything).

Don’t say: “I live in an apartment. I don’t have an estate. I don’t even own a car. I don’t need to do anything.” You do have an estate of some kind. Social Security, disability, retirement account, health insurance, and more must be handled when you die. You also probably have personal items with sentimental or family value. Maybe you don’t want a funeral, just a cremation or burial. Who knows that and will take care of it? We all need a plan: some extensive, others simple.

Also don’t say: “My kids will take care of everything. They love each other. They’ll do what’s right.” Dollars, houses, land, and family memorabilia split families. Don’t think settling your estate will be an exception. Be kind to those you leave behind. Make your own plans and don’t leave them squabbling.

Get legal papers in order. Talking about death and what you need to do to prepare will not hasten your death one iota. So, make an estate plan and consider a Living Trust. Guardianship or custody is a big issue if you have underage children or others needing lifetime care. Take care of that issue. Free Will Baptist Foundation and their partner Cornerstone Estate Planning are excellent sources to provide information and help you create a plan. Call 877-336-7575.

Sit down with your executor or trustee and share at least the basics of your estate plan. We already have complete lists of legal papers, along with clear directions, for the one who will settle our estate. He has that list and knows exactly where to find our important documents.

Establish power-of-attorney to act on your behalf if you become disabled or impaired and can’t carry on your business or health decisions. (Remember that POA expires at your death.) Also, make a living will that spells out your desired medical care. Organize and file all legal paperwork in an easy-to-understand format. These are all things Angus did well.

Angus’ investments were a big tangle because he had paperwork for previous investments mixed in with active ones. Also, some investments had changed names, and he had not noted that. We had to chase them down, and it was a mess. Whether you have one 401(k), one insurance policy, one bank account, or dozens, be kind to your executor and heirs. Get that paperwork organized and accessible. Destroy or clearly label everything that has been cancelled, cashed out, or sold.

Remember Scripture. James 4:13-17 reminds us we don’t know what tomorrow will bring. He also warns us not to be arrogant, thinking we know how life will go. He ends with a final warning that whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin. In Ecclesiastes 8:5-6, Solomon said the wise know the proper time and the just way, for there is a time and a way for everything. In short, be wise. Be just. Shrugging off preparations for our end-of-life issues may be a sin. Planning is the right thing to do.

What to do now. Take care of all those legal documents and clean out junk. Cancel credit cards you no longer use, and then shred them. Yes, cancel first, then shred. Decide which online subscriptions or accounts you no longer need and cancel them. Name your funeral home and purchase a burial contract, plot(s), and perhaps a marker. Plan your own funeral service if you want to. Write your obituary (but don’t brag or go on too long). A recent obit in our local newspaper was two 15-inch columns long.

If necessary, establish a joint or payable-on-death account with your executor so he or she can pay bills after your death. However, be cautious here. Many of us don’t need to put another name on an account—especially a big account. If it is a joint or payable-on-death account, the money becomes the property of the person you have named. Check with a lawyer on your best approach.

Review often. We review and update all our legal documents, lists, and directions to our executor every three to five years—and sometimes more often. Be sure you follow your state’s laws. Also, choose executors and successor trustees carefully and with their consent. Are they organized and good at details, and can they keep confidences?
Be wise.

Clear out the junk. Angus was a hoarder. The physical labor of clearing his house was enormous. Maybe you are not a hoarder, just a saver. Aren’t we all? Consider what Swedish author Margareta Magbusson calls “The Gentle Art of Death Cleaning.” Get rid of things now that you don’t use or enjoy regularly, so you don’t leave behind too much “stuff” for others to deal with. Ask, “Will my family be happy I kept this? Will they want this? Or will they be troubled, worn out, and angry about having to deal with it?”

Finally, (let me repeat) don’t leave a mess. We are all traveling unknown roads. Don’t leave litter. Someone will have to “clear out and clean up” after our death. Be kind. Give them time to grieve without cleaning up your mess.

About the Author: Bill and Brenda Evans live, teach, and write in Ashland, Kentucky. Reach out to them at


©2023 ONE Magazine, National Association of Free Will Baptists