Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Plenty of Pesky Paperwork by KM Rockwood

Paperwork and related issues are taking over my life! And I don’t mean in a good way. I really haven’t been working on my writing for the last few months. I’ve been overwhelmed by “life happens.”

I do need to get back to my manuscripts. I have a few short stories in every stage from the nugget of an idea to one that just needs final polishing. And a novel that should be ready for its final workup. Until, of course, I read it over and decide it’s a total disaster.

But first I need to attend to a plethora of pesky projects (is sinking to alliteration a good sign or a bad sign?) Most of them have to do with my recent move and my husband Steve’s recent passing from dementia. I’ve always heard that dealing with the clerical, legal and financial aftermath of a death is complicated and comes at a time when just coping with life can be difficult.

In this state, Pennsylvania, transfer of everything between spouses is a relatively simple process. Fortunately, we’d listened to a friend who discovered, after her husband died, that including bequests to other people complicated things considerably. Things like a guitar to a cousin, a record collection to a friend. Things that could easily been taken care of if he’d left everything to his wife, who would have been happy to follow a note telling her who he wanted to have what.

I needed to contact insurance companies, financial companies, utilities—I’m sure I’ve overlooked a few.

To my dismay, when I checked in our file of “important papers,” I discovered that at some point Steve had decided to clean it out. Probably at about the time it was dawning on me that he was having real difficulty and I needed to take over all the clerical details of our lives. The file contained the dog licenses, expired passports, and some ads for financial advisors. No birth certificates, no car titles, no house deed, no marriage or divorce certificates, no Social Security cards.

I called Social Security and discovered that they schedule you for a telephone appointment to speak to a representative. In six weeks. I put it on the calendar and kept the morning clear of other commitments.

When my appointment came, we went through all the questions. Since I did not have a copy of the marriage certificate, the paperwork would be held until I mailed one in. The representative asked where we had been married. I told her Chicago. She said that since Chicago was a state, I needed to know in what city we’d been married. I tried telling her Chicago was a city in Illinois, but she was having no part of that nonsense.

I saw no point in arguing, since what she believed would have no bearing on my ability to get a marriage certificate. When I got in touch with the clerk’s office, I found out that it would take two months to get the certificate unless I paid an expedited fee of $70. I know to pick my battles, so I paid it. I’m waiting for that now.

One thing that could be canceled was Steve’s health insurance. The next premium, an automatic deduction from my checking account, was due the day after he died, so it was taken out before I had a chance to notify them of his passing. When I called, they assured me that they would send a refund check for the month. I asked how that would work. “Just have him sign it and deposit it in his account,” they told me.

Uh, the reason I’m canceling is because he’s dead. He can’t sign a check. Well, maybe it can be made out to “the estate of…” Then I can take it with a copy of the death certificate and the authorization for me to act as the estate’s representative to the bank and see if they will accept it.

Next was a check made out to both of us from the electric company. We were members of a rural electric coop, where all users are part owners, and the check represented our share of profits. I called, but whoever answered was unsure if it could be reissued and told me just to try to deposit it.

I did try to get some information by calling the bank, but could not even get past the “Please select from the following options” circular customer service phone robots, which kept returning me to the same several menus. I use the term “customer service” because that is what they call it, not because I find it to be an accurate description of the process.

I will take the checks into the bank and see what I can do with them. Unfortunately, there are no branches of the bank I’ve been using for thirty-some years near where we moved. And I haven’t been cleared to drive yet after my recent knee surgery.

The one bright spot seemed to be my Maryland state pension. A quick phone call and I was assured everything would be taken care of as soon as they got an original death certificate. I should enclose a stamped self—addressed envelope so they could mail the death certificate right back to me. One hassle out of the way.

Filing income tax forms was also on the agenda. Since I have not been actively writing, at least I didn’t have a lot of royalties with which I had to deal. If I ever get to that point, I have a feeling I will spend as much on accounting services to keep things straight as the royalties bring in.

For now, I’ve been using TurboTax. It should be reasonably easy. It automatically imports financial information and plugs it into the right slots. And it stops dead if you make errors that will cause problems. I’ve always been able to correct them and the program chugs along to completion.

This time, though, a pesky $5.46 foreign tax payment showed up. It had to have come from the investments we sold to get the entrance fee for the retirement community we moved into in the fall. I finally found it in the 48-page statement from the brokerage firm concerning transactions over the year. The tax instructions said that unless the foreign tax paid was much higher—I think it was $200—that I need not file that particular form.

Apparently TurboTax didn’t agree. I finally got hold of a real person on the “help” feature. I’m still not entirely sure what the nice lady did, but suddenly the program announced my tax form was complete. I decided I didn’t really need to know what happened and sent it in.

I was optimistic that I had waded through all the details I needed to handle. At least the ones I know about.

Then today I got my stamped self-addressed envelope back from the pension office. Inside was a death certificate for one George Brooks of Columbia, MD.

The late George Brooks and his frustrated widow are certain to show up soon in a short story.




  1. Oh, KM, I'm so sorry you're going through this. I had to help my mom wade through the paperwork for my dad, and then I had to do the same for her, although we both learned our lesson while doing it the first time. She had hers well organized. I can't imagine trying to handle it all in the time of Covid, no less.

  2. KM -- I know it doesn't help much to tell you that when it comes to dealing with estates, the world is not picking on you. Everyone has tales to tell -- although I will admit, you are the first friend I've heard of who got back the wrong certified death certificate. That little detail could lead to all kinds of fictional mayhem. I look forward to reading that story.

    In the meantime, I hope the real story sorts itself out soon.

  3. So sorry to hear what you are dealing with, Kathleen. The only positive is that eventually you will get to the end of this paperwork nightmare.

  4. Oh, KM, I am so sorry you are going through this. I was a probate paralegal for 21 years. Part of my job was convincing the person on the other end of the phone that the decedent was not available. I must admit, I never received an incorrect death certificate. That's story fodder for sure!

    Hang in there. Hugs.

  5. Oh, Kathleen! My condolences on the death of your, husband, Steve! You leave me with a cautionary tale and a hope and a prayer for your peace of mind! Wow, you've given new definition to "cusomer service." Sometimes I think these people are reading from a script from hell!! Be well, and good luck with the Brooks family. This thing is a saga!!!

  6. Annette, you were smart to organize your mother's paperwork. One of my daughters, who will be the one to handle my affairs after death, had me at her attorney's office two weeks after my husband's death to redo my will.

    Jim, sometimes it's hard not to feel targeted, but then when you listen to other people's tales of woe...

    Susan, I trust you are right that there is an end to this.

    Kait, I can just imagine trying to convince some of these people that the dead person cannot come to the phone.

    Nancy, I think the best way to deal with it is to see the humor in it and use it for story fodder.

  7. George Brooks and his frustrated widow could not be in better hands, Kathleen. Thank you for your grace and humor. Best of luck wading through the morass. My deepest sympathy on Steve's passing.

  8. The trials and tribulations we go through when a loved one has died. So sorry you've had to wade through mistakes and ignorance, Kathleen. Your sense of humor is a saving grace.

  9. Kathleen, I'm so sorry you have to endure all this. My mother had a "relatively" uncomplicated estate, but it took almost a year to get through everything. Best wishes for a speedy resolution with no additional complications.

    I remember the state of Massachusetts demanded the birth and death dates and places for my grandparents. I found my mother's parents in a family genealogy book and a relative had the information for my father's parents.

  10. Kathleen,
    It is a crime that one must go through all this, especially at a time when one has lost a loved one (condolences again on your loss of Steve), but you definitely found a moment of frustrated humor in it. I can't wait to see the story you'll eventually spin.

  11. KM, my condolences again on the loss of Steve. It is almost criminal how every family has to go through all these mad and maddening hoops. The one consolation is that I think you're going to have a heck of a story to spin from this experience.

  12. Thanks for the vote of confidence, Molly.

    Marilyn, finding the humor doesn't help in truly tragic situations, but puts a lot of frustrations in perspective.

    Margaret, I'd be lost on the info about my grandparents. We're not even sure if my grandfather was born in Ireland or the US.

    Thanks, Debra. I'm envisioning Mrs. Brooks right now.

    Shari, I hope I'm almost through the paperwork hassles.