My maternal uncle passed away and had many years prior named me as the beneficiary of what was termed a “death policy” through his former employer. I had forgotten all about it until a distant relative mentioned that my uncle had retired from a school district and that someone should check with the School Retirement Agency to see if there would be any funds available to cover the funeral expenses. Low and behold, yes, there was a policy and I was named as the beneficiary. I think you can guess what happened next.
Unbeknownst to me, my mother went on a spending spree: arranging the funeral (planning which I was not allowed to be involved in) and ordering flowers (from “all of us”), ordering twenty (yes, 20) copies of his death certificate from the funeral home (run by a family member), and all the while telling me that I didn’t need to come to the funeral. I thought that was strange. Needless to say, I did attend the funeral because I loved him dearly – he suffered some very miserable last few years. It was all heartbreaking and I hope that in death he has achieved some level of peace that was denied him in life.
Anyway, as I said, I did attend the funeral and within a few days of the service I began to get telephone calls from my mother and her sister (my aunt) wanting to know when I was going to claim the money and telling me that I would need to get a copy of the death certificate from THEM before I could do so (in hindsight, I think they assumed this could be used as some kind of leverage). The calls came on an almost daily basis both at home and at my workplace– the two even tried to drop in on me (unannounced) at my place of work, thankfully I have a secure building with limited access. They had the security guard call me to allow them entry but I was in a meeting at the time and away from the office so I know all this only because of the voicemail message the security guard left me that day. Keep in mind that my mother and aunt both live several hours away from me, so “popping in” would have required them to make some significant coordinated effort.
That’s when things got really ugly. My aunt called me at home one evening (I could tell she had me on speaker phone but I didn’t say anything about it – just played along). She began by asking me in a sickly sweet voice: how was I doing (funny, hadn’t heard from her in YEARS before this), how was work, how was my husband/children and then…. BAM! How much is the death policy- it’s $5K, right? When are you going to collect it?
I told her it was actually $10K, however, because it was not a life insurance policy, there would be withholding taxes that would reduce the payable amount so I wasn’t sure how much it would end up being. She then proceeded to tell me that after I received the money and paid the taxes on it and paid for the funeral, I would need to give the remainder to her because she was “legally entitled” to it and that I “didn’t deserve it”. I was stunned silent and she continued on, “The only reason he named you as beneficiary is because he thought he would outlive us” (meaning she and my mother), and, “Your mother and I are struggling to survive on just our retirement and social security.” (mind you, my aunt lives in a very large custom built home in an affluent retirement community along with a pool/pool-house and a Lexus SUV). Wow – just wow.
I didn’t really know what to say but managed to respond in what I have to admit was an uncharacteristically calm manner. I told her simply that I would pay for the funeral expenses because that was the right thing to do for my uncle but that I would not be handing over the rest of the money to her or anyone else that may be listening in on the conversation. I further told her that if she and her brother had some arrangement in which he desired that I pass along the proceeds of the policy to her and my mother, I would be happy to do so but would need to see some proof of that in writing. I also reminded her that the term “legally entitled” in this situation would actually be applicable to me as the beneficiary. Suddenly she had no further interest in speaking with me or in knowing how me/anyone else in my household was doing. She said very curtly: “Well, have a nice day” and hung up. Within seconds, the phone rang. It was my mother. She wanted to know if I was “alright”. I told her yes but was tired of talking on the phone. She said, “Ok- love you”. End of call.
Several more calls came over the coming weeks (all from my mother) both at home and at work – all wanting to know the same thing: when was I going to claim the money because she had a copy of the death certificate and would be able to bring it to me so I could take care of it.
Neither one of them had any idea that sometime before the School Retirement Agency had mailed me a letter advising me that I was named as a beneficiary on a death policy and that I could use that notice as documentation in requesting a copy of the death certificate which would be needed in submitting my claim. I did so and shortly thereafter, I received the check. I then contacted my mother and told her to let me know how much the funeral expenses had been so I could reimburse her. She came to my house the following day and brought with her a large manila envelope. It contained a copy of the death certificate (which I didn’t need because I had already received the money – they just didn’t know about it) and a crudely hand written “bill” for the funeral. The bill consisted of a piece of notebook paper (college ruled). It noted the cost of the funeral, flowers and copies of the death certificates came to a grand total of $ 3,548.01 (don’t you love it? – down to the penny).
Did I mention my uncle was cremated?
I wrote her a check then and there for the full amount. Happy with her little payout, she left but not before asking me what I planned to do with the rest? Unbelievable. I told her I hadn’t decided yet.
I haven’t heard from my aunt since that ghastly phone call and contact with my mother has been spotty. My sister stopped speaking to me once she found out that our uncle left me money (not a big loss – this is the person that once called my home when I was away at work in order to make a very creepy pass at my husband- of course he was appalled… let me just say this about my sister: her two biggest achievements in life were surgically implanted into her chest). Considering that I have always been generous with my family over the years, including sending money when needed with no questions asked or expectations of being paid back (and finding out the money had been safely received only because I could tell by my bank statements the checks had been cashed), it was really shocking to see how they treated me.
All in all, it was a terrible ordeal. I have never been so hurt but at the same time, I’m reluctantly grateful that these people have little involvement in our lives. Having wished and hoped all my life for a loving relationship with my mother and being hurt and disappointed time and time again is a little like being let down that a blind person can’t see color: It just isn’t possible.
Thanks for listening. It feels good to write this down and let it go. 1029-14
First, my condolences on the death of your uncle.
I do think you are being a little harsh in how you view some of your Mom’s actions. Ordering 20 copies of the death certificate is recommended by numerous funeral arrangement sites and organizations. I can speak from experience that those 20 copies were likely needed by the executor of the estate to close many accounts. In the case of my father-in-love’s estate, more than 20 copies were needed.
Rather than finding your mother’s exact summation of the funeral costs to be worthy of suspicion and disdain, I offer a different view. It appears she was the executor of the estate and by law she has a serious fiduciary obligation to perform the probate of the estate with clarity and accuracy. I would have given you a “bill” that was exactly to the penny, if I were the executor, because ethics and the law demands that level of precision in the estate accounting. I have a relative, executor to a deceased family member’s estate, who embezzled thousands of dollars from the estate by first starting to fudge those few dollars and eventually fudged so much that the delta between the actual costs and what he billed to the estate totaled over $5,000.00. So, you want an executor who will be excruciatingly precise in the amounts of money taken into and out of the estate account.
As for your mother not allowing you into the planning of the funeral, I further suggest that while you were given the legal opportunity to pay for it, you were not given the legal right to plan it. To be honest, I think you created the opportunity for drama by how you handled this situation. If your uncle’s death policy was meant to cover his funeral expenses, I believe you had a duty to take the initiative to inform the executor of the estate in a timely manner what the funeral budget limit was based on the net proceeds of the death policy. Instead you presented the opportunity for your mother to hound you to get answers she needed as the executor to close the estate accounts. And I further think your representation of your mom as greedy is unfair. She merely wanted the funeral expenses reimbursed and she did not ask, like her sister did, for any part of the remaining funds. Her asking you what you were going to do with the remaining money is just “mom talk”. If one of my kids had received a financial windfall, I’d be curious to know what they were going to do with it, too. New car? Add a nursery? To me it’s about rejoicing with them and seeing them enjoy the prospects of blessings brought by unexpected money.
As to cost of the funeral, I don’t consider $3500.00 for cremation, flowers, and other funeral service arrangements to be that unusual or extravagant. The average cost of an embalming and burial in the US is between $7,000.00 and 10,000.00 so $3500.00 for cremation funeral service was a thrifty choice. Did you expect your mother to simply have her brother cremated (about $500-1000, depending on the locale) and his ashes spread in the back woods somewhere or did you think that flowers, the rental of the chapel, programs, the services of the funeral directors were all free? I suspect if your mother had not organized a tasteful funeral service for your uncle, you would have found fault with her as well.
Regarding the remaining money left after all funeral expenses had been paid, I personally would have donated it to a charity I thought uncle would have appreciated, like a teachers’ retirement fund. You were not expecting that money, you noted that it was designated for funeral expenses and by not taking a pro-active position to donate the remaining money (a few thousand?), the temptation to be greedy came to the surface in everyone. While you had a legal right to retain the remaining funds for yourself, and you had no obligation to share it with others, and to certainly ignore whining that others are more “entitled” to it than you, I think you allowed money to create further barriers to relationship health. It became a family squabble over the last “bone” of the estate and to my thinking, if the dogs are fighting, it’s time to get rid of the bone but this assumes one values relationships over money. After my father died, I discovered that he had a huge amount of frequent flyer miles accumulated which would have covered the cost of at least 4 round trip plane tickets to anywhere in the US and I further discovered that one particular family member was exploiting this asset by redeeming those points for his own ticket while other family members were left to pay for theirs. I ended the family drama by calling the airlines and having the remaining frequent flyer points donated to the Fisher House for wounded vets, an appropriate donation considering my dad was a retired veteran. Was the greedy bastard who exploited this asset happy that his access had been cut off? No, he was one angry guy but the rest of the family was relieved and supportive of the decision and it’s by these choices that one really discovers where family priorities lie.