Things That Can’t Be Overlooked When Settling an Estate
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Estate organizer Ava Chappell tells you what you need to know
Ava Chappell has been helping clients, the majority of whom are women, organize and settle their estates since 2012. Previously, she’d spent more than two decades in the financial services industry and then started a company helping small businesses increase their operational efficiency, but when a client lost her husband and needed help organizing the estate, she approached Chappell, and the idea for her next company venture, Estate Organizers, was hatched.
“It really surprised me that my client needed this kind of organization,” says Chappell. “I knew that the couple had an estate attorney, financial services counselor, and a CPA. [I also knew] the husband was a very savvy and successful businessman with considerable investments and collectibles.” But while her client was aware of all these holdings, she didn’t know how to access them because they weren’t in one place; they were owned by various entities and in multiple accounts. Chappell describes having to pore over three years’ worth of filings in order to amass all the relevant statements. “It was a tremendous job,” she said, and “very difficult for my client to actively mourn her husband when she was overwhelmed by the demands and deadlines of settling the estate.” That’s when Chappell knew there was a need for this kind of service—to help handle the financial necessities of women in mourning who might be caught off guard by their partner’s death.
Q: I could have used someone like you after my first husband died. Really, I was overwhelmed by the endless paperwork on top of the everyday demands of life and solo motherhood.
A: Sometimes women just need someone in their home to help with all the details.
Q: What kinds of situations do you see most often?
A: People cover the big picture only. They think in terms of wills and trusts and whether they are leaving loved ones sufficient financial assets.
Q: What else should women be mindful of?
A: The first is whether the executor of her will—and, if appropriate, her spouse’s will—knows exactly where files and statements and phone numbers are kept. The executor must have complete access and knowledge of everything. The second scenario looks at what would happen in the case of an accident where both parties died. How would someone not living in her home be able to step in and help someone second in line to settle her estate?
Q: Can you give us an example?
A: Not long ago I’d been e-mailing a single friend of mine about getting together. When the emails went unanswered, I left voice mails. And then I finally sent her a written note. That’s when I received a call from her sister letting me know she had died of complications from pneumonia three weeks ago. Her sister, who did not live in the same city, had no way of getting in touch with anyone because all my friend’s contact information was stored in her computer and phone . . . and she did not leave the password information. The world has become so high-tech today that we don’t often think of the “what if” cases like these until it’s too late.
Q: That’s really an eye-opener.
A: Widowed, divorced, single, or married, everyone should prepare an estate blueprint, a document that lists essential information such as contact numbers for all professional advisers, and the location of wills, trusts, health-care proxies, safety deposit boxes, and investment and bank account information. Every account and holding should appear on this document along with the appropriate passwords and PINs. I also encourage women to add a section for expenses, particularly those that are paid monthly or deducted, like health insurance, school tuition, orthodontist bills, and the mortgage. I’ve had clients overdraw accounts after paying for funeral expenses because they didn’t realize the mortgage was paid from the same account. That is unnecessary stress, particularly for a Solo Mom in the raw stages of grief.
Q: It sounds like communication is very important.
A: That’s right. Getting organized is the first step. But it’s essential to make your plans known—and to do so verbally and in writing. This goes beyond the estate blueprint, too. Women need to convey their wishes in terms of funeral arrangements and whether they even want to be buried at all. I’ve seen cases where one sibling is certain [the] mom wanted to be cremated, but the other sibling says no. Without something in writing, there’s little recourse. Another situation I’ve encountered is when families aren’t aware that burial insurance has been prepaid. It happens, but without this information clearly communicated, there’s little that can be done after the fact.
Nancy Sharp is an author, a keynote speaker, and a storyteller who frequently speaks publicly about loss, transformation, and bold living. The author of the award-winning memoir Both Sides Now: A True Story of Love, Loss, and Bold Living, she lives in Denver with her second husband, her twins, and her two stepsons. You can find her on Twitter: @BoldLivingNow and Facebook: Nancy Sharp.
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