Kat Reed is the founder of Helping Survivors Manage, which is an organization dedicated to delivering practical everyday assistance to the people left behind after a death; here is a link to the website:
Q: What inspired you to start Helping Survivors Manage?
A: After my mom’s death, I stayed with my dad to help him with all the odds and ends (the business side of death) that needed to be handled; cancelling appointments, reporting the death to creditors, sorting all the mail (condolence cards, donations), notifying credit reporting agencies, and more. There are so many tasks to manage, so I got on my computer and searched – thinking to myself, “this will be easy, I will just search for the tool that MUST exist to help me get through this” I knew there had to be something to help guide me step-by-step through the process. Turns out, it did not exist. There were tons of resources scattered about in hundreds of different law sites, funeral sites, planning sites, but nothing comprehensive that would hold someone’s hand and walk them through it. As with most new ventures, I filled a void, which I didn’t think was possible anymore. The result was a self-help workbook called Begin Here: helping survivors manage. It helps the survivor through all the necessary tasks left behind after a death – after the funeral – by means of the book (available in hard cover and PDF) as well as online tools and downloads on the site.
Q: What are the basic things everyone needs to know about settling a person’s affairs after death?
A: Of course ‘settling a person’s affairs after a death’ brings to mind the legal side, of which we have tips on our site and in the book for what the attorneys will need, however, we do not provide legal advice. The Helping Survivors Manage mission focuses on the day-to-day tasks that need attention from a survivor perspective. There are many basic things, but I will break it down into the most important/urgent things:
- Providing for any dependents of decedent, human or pet. Make sure the people and pets whose livelihood relied on the decedent are safe. Do they need medication? Do they have a place to go? Who will care for them?
- Checking the home for safety measures. Make sure the stove/oven is in the ‘off’ position. Check for food that needs to be removed (in fridge, cupboards, or scattered inadvertently in the home) that could cause vermin infestation or mold, check windows and doors to make sure they are locked. If in an owned home that is now vacant, turn off the water pipes, set the thermostat properly, retrieve medications and valuables and remove them, turn on a few lights and keep an eye on the mail and the yard, arrange for a trusted or experienced house-sitter if possible, to avert potential burglar issues.
- If decedent is in any type of rental unit (apartment, retirement community, etc.), notify the owner as soon as possible to set a move-out date. Many places have long waiting lists for new tenants and items should be removed as soon as possible. Take possessions to a safe, separate location for disbursement later.
Of course there are more, but they are in the book and these are the most urgent and important measures to take.
Q: What are some of the legal resources available to people after a loved one dies?
A: Fortunately, in these times, there are legal resources for just about anything. Unfortunately, on the flipside, the internet is saturated with companies that may have been formed on a whim in the in the past couple of decades that may have ceased to exist, but their websites linger. Side note: Whenever I do an online search and want to make sure I find an updated site, I used the setting to search for the past year or less. This will weed out any old sites that may have not been touched in a long time, meaning, they are likely not doing much to keep up the business. This is not an absolute, but as a general rule, that is my personal preference when I want to find something relevant online. I want to use companies who are keeping up with the times. A few legal resources that are helpful that should, or definitely will, be around for years to come are:
- The SSA (Social Security Administration) has helpful legal information on survivor benefits.
- The Funeral Consumers Alliance “is a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting a consumer’s right to choose a meaningful, dignified, affordable funeral” excerpt from their website. If anyone is confused and feels they need guidance in the funeral planning, it is important to know your rights, and the decedent’s rights.
- The National Military Family Association is a good resource for survivors of military personnel. The US Department of Veteran Affairs (aka the VA or Veteran’s Administration) is also a good resource for survivors of military vets.
These sites will help a survivor with basic information. Depending upon the net worth of a decedent, a survivor may want to hire his/her own attorney, just remember that fees add up quickly.
Another important thing to remember is that if the survivor is emotionally close to the decedent, it may be difficult to make good decisions due to the grief. Having a trusted friend who has been through the experience may be prudent as they may be able to provide constructive and helpful feedback. It is a difficult time to think clearly – no matter how together anyone thinks they are, grief is a whole new plane on which to function.
Q: Why do you think there are so many organizations dedicated to grieving, but only one like yours?
A: What a great question! This is the best question I have been asked, and the answer is…drum roll, please…it is not fun and it is a thankless job! It is like being a janitor; no one wants to look at the mess, or clean the mess, but they are happy when it is clean (which is what happens after a survivor gets and uses my book for a decedent). Death in general is such a tough topic, especially for Westerners.
It is difficult to pick up the phone and tell a creditor “I need to report a death” especially if it is someone with whom you have spent your entire life loving. Because it is not easy, it is typical for people to just let the decedent’s attorney handle it (never underestimate the power of denial), which means you are paying someone between $100-500.00 an hour to do something you can do yourself – or delegate it to someone who wants to help you do it (with the help of my book and the tools on the website). From a practical standpoint, it is not the wisest financial choice to hire a law office to, for instance, shut off the water and electricity of the decedent’s residence, right? Bottom line, it is neither fun nor glamourous and no one will care when you finish; and when you finish, you never want to think of it again.
Also, there is no sense of happiness or achievement when you complete the tasks because it means the decedent is really gone in every way (physically). To get a perspective on not wanting to let go (which is what managing all these tasks is accomplishing), my dad died in 2008, I still have his email address in my contact list, I cannot (of course logically, will not) delete it. Almost everyone I know has the last voicemail someone left a survivor before the decedent died. I have my grandma’s last voicemail message she left me on my answering machine tape (and I no longer have the answering machine) and she died in 2001.
Plain and simple, it is not fun; but that doesn’t make it unnecessary.
Q: What kind of professional background do you have?
A: Since 1984 I have worked as an Office Manager, an Executive Assistant, an Accounting Manager, a Business Analyst, a Technical Writer, an Editor, a Bookkeeper, a Training Coordinator, and an Instructional Design Developer, now an author and blogger – all jobs that have anything to do with details. I love details and organization and take great pride in every job I have ever had. I also have an affinity for the elderly and have been a Hospice Volunteer, and I am an avid reader and true crime fanatic.
Q: What are some of the ways a person can manage a person’s online presence after they die?
A: Again, as with anything available now, companies come and go on the internet. Great ideas are a dime a dozen and people have them every day – and these ideas are thrown on the internet with a free website that may only be touched once or twice. I have done this myself with ideas. It is what we do with those ideas – and how we cultivate something lasting that will be sustainably reliable – that matter. Frankly, from my research, I have not seen anything stand out as a great product yet. In my opinion, it simply has not been a long enough period to make a judgment on the credibility of some businesses out there that claim to want to help you with your online social media presence after a death. This is why I recommend having your own plan (we will have a tool on our website by mid-2015) that you can use as instructions for your survivor. It is old school, but until a company proves to me it has the best method for decedents and survivors, manual is the only way.
Q: What are some pitfalls of prearranged funerals?
A: There are many aspects of prearranging. Part of prearranged is preplanning, which is not necessarily the same as a prepaid planning. You can plan everything and not pay for it; there are dozens (and dozens) of preplanning toolkits available online, in fact, we will have one on our site in mid-2015 after many requests for it. Right now, many of our customers purchase our book and fill it out for themselves and leave it in a place where a decedent will find it. My dad would have done this, and this is a wonderful gift to give your survivor.
From my research, I think the best description of some of the setbacks is described in the New York State Department of Health site for prepaying for a funeral, which states, “As with any financial transaction, there are potential drawbacks. While the law gives New Yorkers some of the strongest protections in the country, it does not provide absolute protection, as the money is controlled by the funeral director, not you. There are some things you must study carefully before entering into a prepaid funeral arrangement:
Make sure you always have a pre-need agreement for services whenever you prepay a funeral, whether it is directly with a funeral home or on your own with the funeral home as beneficiary.
Let someone you trust know that you have prepaid your funeral arrangements and the name of the funeral home. Otherwise, they may select a different funeral home and pay again.
Always deal with a funeral home with which you are familiar and comfortable, or that has been recommended by someone whom you trust.
Know how and where your money is being deposited.
If you pay by cash, get a receipt and keep it in a safe place.”
Of course, every state varies, but I think these guidelines are solid and worthy of following no matter where you live or the decedent lived. From my personal experience, both my parents were completely prepared, they preplanned and prepaid their funerals, including their headstones, which they bought decades before their death. However, I am not sure that would have been the case had they not known their funeral director their entire lives and trusted the funeral home implicitly. It was a great relief for me to know they had prepaid, but I am very pragmatic by nature. In my case, I preplanned what I want to happen to me when I die and I will leave enough money for my decedent/executor to pay for what my plan is.
Q: What are some things a person should include in a living will?
A: As you readers may or may not know, a Living Will is also called a Health Care Directive. I recommend every adult have a completed Health Care Directive now! They vary by state (search online “Health Care Directive”, and your state) and should be completed and shared with a trusted source (one or two family members and a lawyer) and easily found if you become incapacitated. I think my dad kept his Living Will on his person beginning around age 65. I recommend reviewing them yearly when you do your taxes to make sure it is still applicable to your desires.
The directive addresses matters such as how you would like to be cared for if something happened to you and you are unable to make decisions on your own. If you have a stroke and lose the ability to speak and communicate, the Living Will directs your caretakers, nurses and doctors how you want your care bestowed. Another example is you may state in your directive that you do not want to be put on a ventilator if your health declines to such a state that it would be necessary to keep you alive.
Q: Do you think the Brittany Maynard case will change death with dignity laws around the country?
A: I definitely do. I am a big advocate of death with dignity and the group Compassion & Choices (the leader in the fight for individual end-of-life choice) has a wonderful example in Brittany. This is also a good case in the use of a Living Will, while not always adhered, at least it is something substantial for an attorney as evidence of a patient’s rights and desires. I wrote about it on my blog not long ago, and here is an excerpt:
“In November, Brittany Maynard captured the world with her determination to end her life on her terms, death with dignity. Brittany’s terminal cancer gave her the unfortunate vehicle to be a crusader for the cause. The topic is no doubt one that has affected us from the beginning of civilization. The discussion, however, is more recent in our western culture. According to Compassion and Choices, in 1967 ‘A right-to-die bill is introduced in the Florida legislature. It arouses extensive debate but is unsuccessful.’ Since then, much work has been done to address the need and evident desire for choice when one is terminally and exceptionally painfully ill. We are all survivors of Brittany; and her immediate family and friends grieve the reluctant legend in their midst who made a sea change in our views of dying with dignity.”
Q: What can a person do to protect themselves from posthumous identity theft?
A: I must preface this answer with the disclaimer that I found people in the funeral profession to be profoundly funny, an unexpected perk to my research and continual work in the industry.
Answer: To my knowledge, there is not much one can do about that, and frankly, there are not many repercussions of it since the potential victim is dead, after all, you can’t squeeze blood from a turnip!
But seriously, folks, I was shocked to find on a well-known religious website (a group regarded for their meticulous recordkeeping) that my mom and dad’s full social security number and their full name was listed. I thought “Oh no!” then I thought “what horrible things will someone do with this information?” then I thought “What can they do – they are dead?” That said, this is a perfect example of how important it is to do all the things that are outlined in my book to avoid fraud that may occur before you have reported the death. For example, if someone got the credit card of a decedent and the survivor had not yet reported the death, it would be a bigger hassle to get the charges removed after the fact. I am not saying the credit card company will not honor your copy of the death certificate and remove the charges eventually, but why take the chance in having to do all the extra work of managing that when you can just let them know right away and avoid the extra work. It is already not fun handling all these tasks, why make it more difficult on yourself?
For survivors, I always say when it comes to death, it never gets easy, just less difficult – and we want to help survivors in that journey as much as possible.
Disclaimer: Helping Survivors Manage has no affiliation with any of the organizations mentioned in the article.
Please note; Eliza’s interviews are done by email. All answers are unedited and come right from the lovely fingertips of her subjects:)