MARK HARVEY: Fight to know your rights before end of life

“Why,” you reasonably ask, “would anybody not ‘get it together’ enough to have basic, estate planning documents in place?” Well, there can be, and usually are, several reasons:

LAST WEEK, BEFORE we all experienced a collective attack of summer and got distracted by chipping the moss off the door to the deck, we talked about (well, OK, I talked about) what we might do to make our demise easier for the people we purport to love who aren’t demising.

The scenario was a common one, in which one member of a long-term dyad (that’s a fancy word for “couple”), out of habit and mutual agreement, has always been the one that’s “on top of” all the legal and financial issues, then has the audacity and shortsightedness to step off the planet, so it was basically a checklist for the one on top (don’t go there) to make sure that she/he has covered the bases, and for the one “not on top” to have some idea of what they were looking for — or, in some cases, where to start looking.

Hopefully, the one partner had kept the other partner informed of what they were doing, where all this stuff was stashed, what it even meant and, in a perfect scenario, left a list in some conspicuous spot (or even with one of the more obsessive-compulsive offspring, friends or neighbors) to allow for the fact that the “other partner” probably wasn’t listening and certainly wasn’t retaining all this highly detail-oriented information.

It’s a perfectly normal arrangement between couples, with no harm intended.

In fact, in my scenario, the “on top” partner had done a rather impressive job of “taking care of business.” So, now what?

Well, here’s another depressingly common scenario: Nobody took care of business.

Oh, sure, somehow somebody managed to get the bills paid, more or less most of the time, but that was about it.

There was no pre-planning, no arrangements made, no order to the chaos and no method to the madness — just a leap of faith, from one day to the next, that somehow, everything would “work out — and, for the most part, it mostly did, until somebody died.

“Why,” you reasonably ask, “would anybody not ‘get it together’ enough to have basic, estate planning documents in place?”

Well, there can be, and usually are, several reasons:

• Hey, it was all they could do to get through the day, remember? Totally disorganized but totally satisfied with their mutual disorganization and “happy.” Besides, it’s hard to worry too much about tomorrow when today is consuming your limited penchant for particulars.

• They had no idea what to do. Didn’t understand or relate to wills or powers-of-attorney or community property agreements or blah blah blah — what I call “honest ignorance. So, having no idea what to do, they did nothing.

• Denial, that ever popular river in Egypt. People who were so happy or content or generally satisfied with life and one another that the thought of trying to live any other way (never mind the concept of “being alone”) was so overwhelming that they simply made the unspoken choice to “not go there” — a charming, lovely, funny and hopelessly impractical kind of love.

There are others, but who cares? The point is, nobody took care of business, and now one has died, so the other is forced to take care of the untaken-care-of business — and it isn’t pretty.

What do you do? Well, it usually starts with a search, often conducted or bulldozed by the less-than-pleased “kids,” to find some of this stuff — any of it.

Good places to start looking? Well, is there a safe deposit box? (HINT: You may need a court order to open it if both names aren’t on it). Is there a filing cabinet? Is there a home safe or lockbox? Does Mom (often the one left holding the Mystery Bag) know where the “important papers” might be? Ask her where the kids’ birth certificates are. I’ll give you good odds that she knows that, so maybe that’s where the other stuff is.

And yes, Lord help us all, look in any (or all) of the freezers.

Do not, under any circumstances, throw anything away until you’re darned sure you know what it is and where it might fit in the puzzle.

Can somebody find the checkbook? You think I’m kidding? That may actually be a good place to start because it’s not unusual for banks to know things about their customers (and other banks and institutions), so don’t hesitate to talk to these good folks. They’ll help, if they can.

You, remaining partner, may want to consider an attorney and right now because you’re going to need professional help sorting all this out without losing the farm, and you need to get your own estate planning documents in place so you don’t bless your heirs with the same wild goose chase in the midst of a terribly emotional time. If you can’t afford legal assistance, call any of the numbers at the end of the column and talk it over.

And this is not the time to buy anything — meaning, don’t get distracted by TV or internet offers or seminars on “living trusts” or anything-the-heck-else until you have your ducks (or the wild geese you were chasing) in a row.

Is this sounding fun so far? It isn’t. It’s nobody’s fault, but it is a nightmare that can go on for months and years.

Kids: Looking for a cool gift for your dearly loved but can’t-get-it-together parents (or grandparents or whomever)? Spring for the attorney fees to get this stuff done, and you’ll probably be able to con your folks into giving you copies for when the time comes — because the time will come.

What’s the point of all this? The point is:

• Get this stuff.

• Know where it is.

• Have a basic understanding of what the heck they are.

Know your rights.

Did I say “rights”? Oh, y-e-a-h, because there is one more scenario: the one where somebody doesn’t really even like the other somebody at all.


Mark Harvey is director of Clallam/Jefferson Senior Information &Assistance, which operates through the Olympic Area Agency on Aging. He is also a member of the Community Advocates for Rural Elders partnership. He can be reached at 360-452-3221 (Port Angeles-Sequim), 360-385-2552 (Jefferson County) or 360-374-9496 (West End), or by emailing

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