How to avoid extra grief after a death

How to avoid extra grief after a death

1 October, 2016 - originally published on nzherald.co.nz 


About six weeks after his mother's funeral, Bruce Maynard wondered why he was feeling so glum.

"I just felt down; really quite depressed. I couldn't be bothered with work, I was grumpy and uncommunicative at home - and didn't know why. I didn't think it was my mum's death as that had all been over for some time...we'd had the funeral and the goodbyes.

"But then my sister said to me: 'It's grief, you nong. You are grieving for your mother.'

What Maynard was experiencing could be called Delayed Executor Stress. Named as executor of his mum's will, he was so busy organising the funeral, dealing with family and wrapping up his mum's affairs with a variety of others, including lawyers and banks, he'd had little time to focus on grieving.

"Popular belief is, that by keeping busy, you get past all the stress and the grief associated with close personal loss," says Maynard. "But it wasn't true in my case. All I achieved was pretty much delaying the mourning by about six weeks.

"Being an executor involved quite a lot - and it led me to a difficult pass with my younger brother. He was miffed he hadn't been named executor and he didn't talk to me for a time or only when he had to. It all worked out in the end but it was awkward for a while."

Family dynamics and emotions are only part of the tricky business of being an executor - and research from New Zealand's experts in the field, Public Trust, has revealed that 95 per cent of executors surveyed felt they needed help and support in the role.

Given that there were over 31,000 deaths in New Zealand last year, that's a lot of executors - even accepting not all those deaths would have involved a will, an estate and passage through complications.

Maynard's experience was relatively simple but many others have to steer a course through difficulties not only stressful but legally binding.

Public Trust's general manager retail, Matt Sale, says Maynard's experience was typical of many executors: "It's an honour and a privilege to be asked to be an executor of someone's estate - but few people understand fully what it means and many have absolutely no idea."

"They don't realise they have signed up for a job with legal obligations and a number of difficult and time-consuming responsibilities for which they do not get paid and, in some cases, even have to pay out of their own pocket for non-recoverable expenses. That happens at a time when they should be grieving and/or supporting family and friends."

Probate is one major element - the legal document issued by the High Court which confirms a will's validity and the appointment of the executor. While it involves a lawyer, Sale says many executors do not even know they have to apply for probate as part of their duties.

That is only the beginning of a process which is legally binding and involves personal liability, meaning an executor can be sued by dissatisfied stakeholders. That becomes potentially more likely if the executor is also a beneficiary - which Public Trust's research showed 75 per cent were.

"A death of a close family member or friend is a highly emotional time and those sorts of complications can and do arise," says Sale. "That's the advantage of having an independent executor - it brings that objectivity and arbitration into play.

"Disputing a will is one thing, allegations an executor hasn't handled his or her duties properly another - and both happen from time to time. There was a legal case recently where an executor faced a legal challenge because a couple queried funds being removed from the deceased's account.

"Much more common are family squabbles over mum's china - that sort of thing. Those kind of complaints and complications can be upsetting and involve quite a bit of family animosity at a really emotional and difficult time."

Locating beneficiaries, filing tax returns, re-homing pets, resolving disputes between beneficiaries and advertising for creditors were all tasks some executors were unaware of. It takes an average of well over 50 hours to complete all executor's tasks and finalise the estate.

"I think the most common areas where executors struggle is the sale of assets and keeping account of the value of assets, ensuring they are accounting correctly and that beneficiaries received the maximum benefits under the terms of the will." 

Executor Assist is the Public Trust service designed to take care of some or all of the estate administration process for executors. Sale says: "We've been doing estate administration for over 140 years; we manage over 2000 simple and complex estates annually. We know being an executor is a significant responsibility so there's no shame in asking for help."

"The great thing about this service is that the Executor doesn't have to give up control, they still have the decision making power and we work with them, quietly and efficiently in the back ground to ensure their job is easier," says Matt.