Practical and Legal Advice – Part III

5. Go Slow; Don’t Make Any Major Decisions Too Quickly.

It rained hard today in our part of California, the central San Joaquin Valley. Notwithstanding what you non-Californian readers may think, California has an agriculture-based economy, and the San Joaquin Valley is the heart of California farm country. The center and east side of the Valley is mostly tree fruits and vineyards, and the west side of the Valley is mostly row crops; vegetables, cotton, alfalfa. (Northern California is where they grow California’s largest cash crop — marijuana.)

Tree fruit farmers and vineyard farmers generally have no pressing business outside on a rainy day. But the west side of the valley was abuzz today with farming activity. Those guys out there on the west side know the true meaning of farm-born expressions like “make hay while the sun shines.” Except the sun wasn’t shining today. The lettuce harvest was on today, and large crews of mostly hispanic farm workers and heavy machinery were out in the muddy fields, braving the pouring rain and hand-harvesting truckloads of the delicate green lettuce heads. On a dry day the paved roads on the west side of the Valley are brown with dust from the tractors and trucks coming out of the fields onto the pavement. On a wet day like today the paved roads are mudddy and slick; great lumpy trails of mud are tracked out of the rain-soaked fields on the wheels of the tractors and harvesters and trucks that facilitate the dirty work of feeding us.

These west-side farmers and farm workers know what it means to get dirty. Their trucks are so mud-splattered you sometimes can’t even tell what color they are. Workers come into west-side restaurants and businesses with mud-caked boots and clothes. And the fields and dirt field roads are a muddy, rutted mess.

I drove from the east side of the Valley today to my property management company’s new office in the west-side town of Coalinga. The muddy roads, and especially the ruts in the dirt roads of the west-side fields, reminded me of a story told by Tom Bodett on one of his read-by-the-author books on tape. Bodett is a great American story-teller. He mostly tells stories of Alaska, and in this vignette tells about how the roads in Alaska are mostly dirt roads, and how in the rainy season and again in spring when the roads thaw, the roads get wet and the cars make ruts in the road, and when the ruts get too deep another set of ruts will start up, and so on, until you have multiple sets of deep ruts in the road. Then, in the summer the ruts dry hard, and in the winter the ruts freeze up, and, because it’s usually quite a long way between towns and places in Alaska, quite often when you are leaving a town on a dirt road you will see a sign that says “choose your ruts carefully, you’re going to be in them for a while.”

Bodett tells his “choose your ruts carefully” anectdote as a metaphor for making life choices. It’s good advice for different stages of life: Sue and I have given this advice to our young-adult daughters in regard to choosing careers and life partners. I use it here to illustrate advice I have read in almost every informational publication on widowhood and grieving: “Common sense tells you to postpone making any permanent changes for a while.” (from “Going On … A Pathway Through Sorrow, by Jane Woods Shoemaker) and “During this time (of grieving) discourage yourself from making any critical decisions; such as selling your house or moving to another community.” (from Toward an Understanding of the ‘Going Crazy’ Syndrome, Part I, author unknown, sent to me by Saint Agnes Hospice) The gist of the idea is that grieving muddies-up your ability to think rationally, and if you’re not careful you may get yourself stuck in a bad set of ruts that you don’t want to be in and that are hard to get out of.

In regard to new relationships, the Pathway Through Sorrow booklet says this: “A cautionary thought: It can be difficult to resist getting caught up in a new relationship because of the intense need to end your loneliness. Consider the fact that 52% of widowed men remarry within 18 months of their wife’s death. It is estimated that, of those remarriages, over half end in divorce or abandonment.” On the other hand, that divorce rate sounds like the divorce rate in the general population, so what’s different? If you want to get into a new relationship, I say go for it. Life is short.

So generally, the advice of the experts (I don’t claim to be an expert on this subject) is to go slow and don’t make any major decisions too quickly.

6. Keep Working; Stay Active.

Even if you don’t need the money, the grieving experts (this grief-counseling field is a specialty area for many counselors and authors) say it is advisable to keep working and stay invoved with the activities and people who you were involved with prior to your spouse’s death. The world is still turning, and you need to turn with it. Isolation is not a good thing.

This advice notwithstanding, I mostly avoid people I know and I especially avoid wading into crowds of people who might all want to express their condolences. For a couple of Sundays after Sue died I arrived at Church late and left when the final song started so I could avoid talking to people. That’s just me. Sue would have done the opposite. I have really appreciate all the condolence cards, though.

7. Bankruptcy Is An Option.

Sometimes when a spouse dies the survivor is left with a financial windfall, and sometimes the survivor is financially devastated. A typical scenario when a spouse dies without life insurance, particularly when the deceased spouse was employed and making a significant contribution to the income of the household, is that the household no longer has sufficient income to meet its debt obligations and monthly living expenses. This is particularly true where the deceased spouse saddled the surviving spouse with enormous medical bills. (Sue’s medical bills ran well over a million dollars in a ten-month period!) In these cases it is sometimes necessary to jettison debt or at least to do a debt restructuring. Bankruptcy should be considered.

Many bankrupcty lawyers will do a free initial consultation. Even in cases where life insurance is in place, but the insurance is not going to be enough to sustain the pre-death lifestyle, debt restructuring is sometimes necessary. If you are uncomfortable with filing a bankruptcy, most creditors will negotiate a debt down rather than take a complete loss in a bankruptcy if that is your only other option. Almost all credit card companies will restructure debt, forgive some of the debt balance, and stop interest charges on learning that a spouse has died and bankruptcy is being considered. For distressed borrowers, allmost all major credit card companies will negotiate down to 35% of the original principal amount owed, and allow payment of that amount without interest, if you can pay that reduced balance within three months.

It is better to make inquiries about bankruptcy or debt restructuring early rather than to bleed down all your cash and then realize you shouldn’t have paid some of the bills you paid.

One final thought on this subject. If you know you are dying and you haven’t died yet, and you know your survivors are going to have to deal with debt problems after your death, it is possible to structure estate assets, estate gifts and life insurance pay-outs in what we refer to as “spend-thrift” trusts. These are trusts which hold assets for the trust beneficiary and which protect the beneficiary from recklessly spending the assets, but which also protect the assets from creditor claims. If you think that debts and debt restructuring are going to be issues, the earlier you get in for a legal consultation the more options are available to you.

8. Charity and the Welfare Safety Net.

If you haven’t been raised with a welfare mindset, you may not even think about going down to the local welfare office and seeing what financial and practical help is available to you. I have been surprised over the years at the number of people who came to see me for legal advice and who clearly qualified for welfare assistance, but who had never even called the welfare office. You also may be embarrassed to ask for help from your local church and local non-profit social service agencies. But if you can not make financial ends meet after your spouse dies, you should at least consider making an appointment at the local welfare office and, at least inquiring what benefits, if any, you may qualify to receive. What harm is there in having the information?

Help is especially available to families with dependent children under the age of 22. In fact dependent children under the age of 22 also have their own claim to social security survivor’s benefits, and can receive monthly social security payments.

You should also consider making an appointment with the pastor (priest, rabbi, imam) of your church (or, if you don’t have a church, a local church of a friend or acquaintance) and/or local social service agencies and, if you can’t ask for help, at least tell the pastor (priest, rabbi, imam) or agency worker what your needs are. A surprising number of people may be willing to help you if they know you need help. But people can’t help you if they don’t know what you need.

God probably knows what your needs are or will be before you do. But in my experience God tends to work through people in terms of meeting the needs of the needy; And those people through whom God works may not know what you need unless you tell someone. That applies both to physical needs as well as emotional and spiritual needs.

This last thought reminds me of the one about the man who prayed every day to God to help him win the lottery. Finally one day God responded to the man and told him it would be helpful to his case if he would at least buy a lottery ticket. I mention this only to illustrate that even getting God’s intervention in your life may require something from you. However, it would not be my advice to you to buy lottery tickets to solve your financial problems.