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Where Grief and Admin Co-exist

Where Grief and Admin Co-exist | After the Heartbreak
Where Grief and Admin Co-exist

Who is the executor of your estate? You know, the person who will administer your will? I remember my husband Norbert telling people “…and the first thing she did after we sold up and moved, was draaaag me along to the lawyers to draw up a new will.” This was said with that teasing element to his voice that told me he didn’t mind but that he thought I was just being typically over-efficient and he was magnanimously going along with what I wanted based on the ‘Happy Wife, Happy Life principle’. 😋 “What’s your rush?” he said.

Three years later, and he was gone. No warnings, no time to prepare anything or make any changes or plans. Just the Police standing at my door telling me he had already died.

Read: The Day My Heart Broke

How I got the job as executor of Norbert’s estate

Norbert and me with the lawyer

I’ve written a lot about the emotions in those times, but this time I want to share some of the practicalities and harsh realities. Flicking back briefly to 2015 and that visit to the lawyer, there was a discussion about who would act as the executor of each of our Estates. We both chose family members to cover the eventuality of us both dying at the same time (eg a car accident) but if one of us would die before the other, we decided (like many other couples) that it made sense for each of us to look after each other’s Estate.

Of course it made sense! Who is the person you trust the most? Who is the one who would know what you would want? Who is the one who knows exactly what is important when it comes to possessions? Who is the one who has access to the paperwork and files? It’s obvious…right?

Yeah, well it might be obvious but I wish we had made a different decision back then, and I’d like to explain why so that you can make that decision with perhaps a broader understanding of the responsibilities and impacts on your emotional health.

The (somewhat clinical) business perspective

Following is a brief quote about the role of the executor – it comes from an Australian law site but I’m sure it would be very similar in most parts of the world.

The role of the executor is not one to be taken lightly. The executor must act upon the wishes of the testator by collecting assets, paying liabilities and distributing the testator’s property according to the terms of the will. “

FindLaw Australia

It’s about administering a deceased person’s estate. You knew that and I’m not trying to be patronising, but I am going to tell you that it all sounds perfectly fine and reasonable in the calm atmosphere of a lawyer’s office at a time when all is right with the world…but this is not when you have to actually do it. You’re doing this when everything is definitely NOT alright with the world!

The harsh light of a different reality

Here’s an excerpt from a previous post about the early days/weeks which gives some context:

There are numerous examples of my temporary insanity… My close friends and family will attest to the fact that I was ‘not quite right in the head’….I needed to be reminded to eat…and I was often wandering the house in the middle of the night. Absolutely nothing was ‘normal’ for me and I was living in a fog.”

Grief can make you insane – temporarily (a previous post from this site)

In this particular post I explained that thinking you are going insane with grief, is actually very normal and temporary. It’s tough…but you get through it. Except….right at a time when you are exhausted with grief and your brain is only half operational, as an executor you are required to put on a business hat.

Pull up a chair…you have work to do!

The list of duties is lengthy but at the very least you are responsible for the following:

  1. Get a copy of the will (may need to apply for a grant of probate)
  2. Identify and notify beneficiaries
  3. Arrange the deceased’s funeral
  4. Pay outstanding bills and close accounts
  5. Arrange asset valuations
  6. Notify banks, credit card companies, government agencies, insurance companies, motor registration etc
  7. Organise real estate titles
  8. Pay the estate’s debts and taxes
  9. Set up trusts (if requested in the will) and administer them

You might say “My family would help with everything.” That’s great! I was lucky in that way too as my daughter took on much of the load of going through lists and searching out the forms I needed…countless hours of admin and phone calls. But because she wasn’t the actual executor she had no choice but to send everything on to me.

I had to be the one to complete and sign the form, usually attaching a Death Certificate. My daughter said that if she was the executor she would have been happy to do it all for me. Oh, how I wished that I had made the decision differently.

Others set up the executor role as a joint affair, and this is something I have done now. Probably best to make it ‘severally’ [legal jargon for either/or] because someone told me that their mother had set up her will with the four children as joint executors. This meant that all four of them had to sign documents….and they were living in three different states! A bit too complicated. 🙁

Putting this all together

It’s just such a tough gig at a time when you are your most fragile. A dear friend explained the emotions behind the role in this way…. “This is the person you loved the most, the person you would give your life to have back again… and you are forced into the job of effectively shutting down their life forever“.

Me on the phone

Think about that for a moment. While you are going through your loved one’s clothes to decide what they will be wearing inside the coffin (which you also have to choose), you are most likely also arguing with phone companies about ceasing phone contracts and trying to deal with unsympathetic insurance companies who say “I’m sorry, as you are not the owner of the account I am unable to speak with you about this policy“. (I burst into tears at this one).

You go to see the Funeral Directors to drop off the USB stick with music and photos you’ve had to choose for the service….and on the way back you have to call in to see the lawyer to get more notarised copies of the Death Certificate as every single company, business and government agency will do nothing unless they have this document in their hands…hard copy please….original signature…as soon as possible. 😭

I’ve learned the hard way

Everyone has to make their own decisions, but I wish I could go back and change that particular one. It has been 20 months since my husband died but I’m still wading through paperwork as I arrange final tax returns and follow up on old share certificates. I would definitely not recommend being the executor of your partner’s estate.

At least we had a Will though, and because it was relatively new it was simple to follow and completely up to date with assets. I can only imagine the nightmare if I had to wade through the legal minefield of an out-of-date will, or worse…no will at all! I’m so glad I draaagged Norbert to the lawyers back in 2015.

Nobody talks about this stuff so I thought I’d share my experiences and opinions. What are your thoughts? Have you had a different experience? Do you disagree with me? Has this made you think? There’s a Comment box below…I’d love to hear from you. 🙂


Marlene is an Australian widow who has written about all the good, bad and ugly stuff that happened after her husband Norbert died tragically. Marlene responds to all comments.

8 Comments
  • Norm Watson says:

    Well done Marlene, food for thought and possible action.

  • Heather Waring says:

    Oh Marlene, that’s all so true! Becky died without a will (what 24 year old thinks this is important?) and it was really hard. We were so blessed in that a friend from church is a solicitor and offered to handle most of it for us, but we still had to do the finding and sifting and cancelling. Some days we just couldn’t go into that space at all – if it meant a phone call, it would have to wait till we were emotionally strong enough. And who would have thought that such a tiny thing as trying to cancel a subscription would reduce us to tears! OK, ‘identity security’ is important but I think staff in some companies could be armed with sensitivity, not arguments when dealing with heart broken families.

    • Marlene says:

      Hi Heather, thanks for sharing your story about how the little things can be some of the must upsetting when you are feeling so terribly fragile. It would be nice to think that staff training included how to talk to people who are in difficult situations, but unfortunately I doubt this will happen any time soon.

  • Linda Booker says:

    This is very good Marlene! Most couples have no clue what one of them will be faced with when the other one passes away. Thanks for sharing and I will share with others.

  • Eunice Schmaal says:

    We have our wills with Public Trustee after listening to Melissa who worked there for many years, telling us of the many and varied problems associated with executing a will. She told us they get a lot of people who were asked to handle their will because of all the legal work involved. I know many people don’t trust Public Trustee because of the negative press but think about how many wills they handle daily and the few that make it to the media. I have actually refused to take on the role after hearing her stories and that of those who did try the role themselves.

  • Katherine says:

    Thank you, Marlene. Your practical advice on such an important subject is very helpful, as well as motivating.

  • Bruce Baehnisch says:

    Yes, food for thought and timely in my case as my wife and I are due to update wills shortly. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

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