It was the spring of 2016 when Mark got blindsided by a phone call informing him of his mother, Lisa’s death. Two months earlier, unbeknownst to him and his estranged older brother, Steve, Lisa had declined an emergency surgery that would have attempted to remove a cluster of malignant tumors lodged deep inside her brain. Sixty-five years old, she was recently retired and lived alone. For whatever reason, she’d chosen to keep her condition a secret.
“When the nurse told me what’d happened, I was stunned; it took me by complete surprise,” says Mark, age 31.
Though he lived just 10 miles from Mom’s Coastal Virginia home, he’d been caught in a recent work crunch and was constantly traveling on business. Meanwhile, Steve’s engineering career had led him to settle halfway across the country.
“I’d seen her maybe three months [before she died] and she seemed completely healthy,” says Mark. Leading up to Lisa’s death there were “some emotional phone calls,” but nothing to indicate the direness of her situation. “She exercised regularly, wasn’t overweight or anything like that … It might as well have been a car crash.”
Had he been able to pay a visit, signs of Lisa’s physical decline would have been obvious. Instead, for Mark, the suddenness of Mom’s death seemed a gruesome unreality.
Sadly, the nightmare was only just beginning. Overcome by denial and depression, Lisa had failed to write a will—much less preplan services, pay for funeral expenses, select a gravestone or purchase a burial plot. This plunged Mark into an exhausting financial and legal quagmire, not to mention a demoralizing battle with Steve.
Demanding immediate attention was the question of what to do with his mother’s body. Though Mark had attended services for two grandparents and a couple of distant family members, the notion of planning a funeral felt as foreign as piloting a mission to the moon.
Making matters worse were the event’s financial implications: According to the National Funeral Directors Association, today, an average traditional funeral and burial costs around $7,323 (including embalming, metal casket and viewing service). Springing for common “extras” like flowers, obituary notices, acknowledgement cards, transportation and other items or services ups the cost even more. With Steve refusing to pay for anything and the estate locked up in probate, Mark was stuck covering the expenses out-of-pocket.
“As a funeral director, one of the most difficult situations I run into is working with the adult children of parents that did not plan ahead to prepare for death,” says Duane Jarrell, 60. Currently serving as the director of planning and pre-need care at the Graham Funeral Home in Chesapeake, Jarrell has been a licensed mortician since 1986. “These kinds of scenarios are particularly hard because, in addition to unanticipated financial burdens, the death has often come as a surprise … that means the person responsible for making decisions is likely deep in mourning.”
For the bereaved, this causes considerable complication. Far from an isolated incident, a 2017 national survey of adults that had recently lost a parent or elderly loved one reported more than 48 percent of the deaths occurred “suddenly and unexpectedly.”
“The time we spend in grief penetrates us to the core. It can feel absolutely awful and can make handling everyday tasks next to impossible,” says nationally acclaimed grief expert Pete Shrock. In the past, Shrock trained grief counselors responding to 9/11 and school shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary and Virginia Tech. He is currently the chief people officer at Legacy Navigator, a company that provides estate settlement and cleanout services to families throughout Virginia, where he works to help clients manage grief. “Following the death of a loved one, we are at our most vulnerable—and even more so when that death has come unexpectedly,” he says. “These moments challenge us to question our purpose and invite us to consider what we could have done or should have done differently … Making financial decisions about caskets and headstones is the last thing we want to have to focus on.”
For those in grief, such decisions are never without an emotional element—to talk about Mom in terms of a body that will or will not be embalmed feels wrong, disrespectful, even disturbing. Despite its logistical importance, the question reminds us of the acute permanence of our loss and exacerbates our pain.
“To experience deep grief means entering a world where emotion is constantly clashing with logic,” says Shrock. For someone in Mark’s position—i.e. being forced to take on the responsibility of funeral-planning—the disjunct makes them “easier for predators to take advantage of.”
According to Jarrell, it is the moral obligation of a funeral director to take a client’s vulnerability into consideration and behave with accordant support and ethicality. But while he says exactly zero funerary professionals would argue to the contrary, when it comes to action, many employ a different modus operandi.
“I don’t want to say anything negative about specific businesses or people, but it is a very real problem,” Jarrell confides. Opening his career at a corporate franchise, he quickly made two observations. “There was an exorbitant discrepancy between our prices and those of the local family-owned businesses … and a core difference in philosophy.”
Emphasizing profit over service, sales incentives encouraged employees to upsell grieving clients. Jarrell says that often led families to make more expensive purchases than they would have made in a soberer frame of mind. What’s worse, the practice persists. For instance, while Graham’s most expensive casket currently sells for $6,600, corporate models range to more than $25,000. Furthermore, Jarrell says the difference in quality is often nominal.
A 2017 report from the Funeral Consumers Alliance and Consumer Federation of America corroborates the anecdote. According to the report, median prices for basic services at the nation’s largest funeral home chain, Service Corporation International (which often uses the Dignity Memorial brand name), were as much as 72 percent higher than those of their independently owned counterparts. Surveying 103 independent funeral homes and 35 SCI funeral homes, even the price of simple cremation services varied substantially—$2,700 at SCI versus $1,562 for independent homes.
Though federal law requires funeral homes to post pricelists in their physical locations, the report claims SCI avoided posting lists online to make it harder for consumers to make price comparisons. Considering the company controls about 16 percent of the U.S. market and just one in five people shop around for funeral services—they list “stress” as the primary reason—the discrepancy has major repercussions for consumers.
Such breaches led Jarrell to pursue employment with a company that shared his own standards.
“I found the family-owned element to be extremely important because when you’re serving the community you live in, your name and reputation is all you have,” he explains. These are people that attend your church, that your kids went to school with, that you see in the gym, at the grocery store or wherever. “If your business model is to take advantage and try to rip folks off, word will get out. You won’t be able to hold your head up in public and you won’t be in business for very long.”
Unfortunately, Mark wasn’t dealing with someone like Jarrell. “I didn’t know any better, and I didn’t have anyone to turn to for help,” he says. Searching online, he simply clicked Google’s top listing. Then came the decisions and pressurized salesmanship.
Wouldn’t Mom appreciate the beautiful sendoff of a traditional burial? Embalming her will have her looking her best for viewing. A memorial service in the funeral home’s reception hall will allow friends and family to mourn her passing and celebrate her life. There must be live singers, a video retrospective, a preacher. She was a church-going woman, so a sacred plot must be obtained. No less than a deluxe polished granite tombstone inscribed with epitaph will honor her appropriately. Oh, and yes, the cemetery requires a burial vault. And how about that casket—don’t go for the cheap pine look, Mom deserves to take her immortal rest in the plush silken luxury of copper-trimmed steel. Flowers? There must be flowers! Ah, but what of transportation? Mark my words, you simply cannot leave emotionally decimated immediate family members to drive themselves; a limo is just the thing.
The bamboozling went on. Each item and decision carried a price, and the total added up fast.
Mark says trying to cope with the grief of his mother’s death and Steve’s infuriating deflections was overwhelming. It was all he could do to avoid throwing up his hands and quitting. To have someone else take control seemed a godsend. Price-checking decision points was the last thing on his mind.
“In retrospect, it’s clear I let my guard down,” he says. “Basically, I gave the funeral director the wheel and he railroaded me into spending a lot more money than I should have.”
By the end of it, Mark had forked out nearly $20,000.
After the funeral, Mark’s focus shifted to what he describes as the “complex legal maze” of probate.
“Probating a person’s will involves filing the will with the court, proving it is valid and reflects the true wishes of the deceased, identifying and inventorying the deceased’s property, paying any taxes and debts and distributing the remainder of the deceased’s property to the beneficiaries named in the will,” says attorney Jennifer S. Rossettini, an elder law and estate planning specialist at Virginia Beach and Suffolk’s Hook Law Center. To simplify, she likens the probate process to a script that “guides the orderly transfer of an estate according to the terms of a will and/or the specific rules created by each state.”
Difficult in the first place, when a person dies without a will, the procedure can descend into a legal mess. Far from an anomaly, AARP studies show upward of 60 percent of Americans over the age of 50 have not established a living will. In such situations, according to state law, property passes to the closest living relatives by way of “intestate succession.”
Put another way: If you don’t have a will, the state will make one for you.
“The purpose of intestate succession statutes is to distribute the decedent’s wealth in a manner that closely represents how the average person would have designed his or her estate plan, had that person had a will,” explains Rossettini. “However, my experience has taught me that very few people have family situations that are ‘average.’ The intestacy statutes assume that everyone gets along and everyone has the same needs.”
In Mark’s case, the intestacy should have been fairly straightforward. With Lisa having no surviving spouse, he and Steve would be named co-executors and beneficiaries by “right of representation.” Together, they would share equal responsibility for settling the estate. However, animosity and distrust created complications.
“My brother wanted full control over how things would be split up,” says Mark. Though Mark hoped to keep the house and his mother’s beautifully restored antique sailboat in the family, Steve demanded they sell everything and liquidate the estate.
Within weeks of the funeral, Steve had hired a lawyer. This forced Mark to follow suit.
It took nearly six weeks for the attorneys to reach an agreement and establish a will. When all was said and done, Steve had mostly gotten his way: The house would be sold; items kept by Mark—including the sailboat—would be assigned a value and subtracted from his share of the net estate.
To Mark’s chagrin, the legal negotiations had cost him another $1,500.
Despite the progress, things were far from over. Next came the laborious task of locating important probate documents. Established as co-executors, Steve and Mark had to track down Lisa’s debts and assets.
“This can be quite a chore if the decedent did not leave details regarding owned stocks, bonds, financial institutions where accounts were held, mortgage information, property deeds, insurance policies and so on,” says Rossettini.
Prior to founding Legacy Navigator, Matt Paxton spent 10 years as a routine “featured cleaner” on the hit A&E TV show “Hoarders” and is considered one of the nation’s preeminent cleaning and estate settlement experts. He stresses that, when searching for probate documents, you need to “literally look through everything in the home, sifting through everything from newspapers and old boxes, to computer records and even emails to make sure you don’t miss any pertinent information.”
Once the assets and debts are all discovered and tallied, creditors are subsequently paid out of the estate funds. Afterward, beneficiaries divide what’s left.
However, due to Steve’s distrust of his brother—he was unable to spend more than an occasional weekend helping onsite—a third-party attorney solicitor was employed to oversee the process. Of course, this meant more fees.
“Though there are certain situations where having a probate or estate lawyer makes perfect sense, I generally recommend thinking twice before hiring one to handle every issue during the probate process,” says Paxton. “I say this because a probate specialist can typically help you navigate the majority of steps and issues that arise during probate for a fraction of the cost.”
According to Paxton, had a will been in place, probate experts at his company could have likely handled the entire process—including the intestacy—for as little as “a couple hundred dollars.”
With probate finally concluded, it was time to clean out the home, liquidate possessions and find a realtor to sell the property.
Invariably, this takes a tremendous amount of time and energy. For executors seeking to handle a cleanout themselves, Paxton says they can expect to miss substantial time from work, family, friends and other obligations. Additionally, with DIY cleanouts routinely stretching into months or even years, utilities, taxes and other costs add up quickly.
“When settling an estate, people almost universally underestimate the demands of a clean-out,” says Paxton. One major surprise is the amount of trash that must be removed from a house. “From outdated electronics to ancient carpeting, we find that clients with average-sized homes typically have about two tons of trash to deal with.”
Removal and disposal costs can vary from around $500 to a few thousand, depending.
Another unexpected hardship is the emotions. “When cleaning out a family home, nearly every object has a story and triggers an emotional reaction,” explains Shrock. For example, a busted old recliner isn’t just a chair; it’s the place where Mom sat each morning and read the paper over morning coffee. “Letting those things go can feel like losing a part of yourself or your family history. That can be traumatic and is certainly never easy.”
In the event a client wants to wash his or her hands of the whole thing, Paxton’s company offers comprehensive services. A five-person crew can have most houses cleaned in two to five days and staged for sale in a little over a month.
“We can simply do the cleaning, or, for no cost upfront, handle it all,” he says. “We’ll find important documents, locate assets and debts, help you through probate, search through old clothes for jewelry, get rid of all the trash, donate clothes, move whatever items you want to keep and prep the house for sale.”
Of course, those services cost money. However, higher home sale prices, recovery of lost assets and valuable items and a more effective liquidation often leaves beneficiaries richer than they would have been handling the jobs themselves.
“Any number of places can come in and bill you for cleaning,” says Paxton. “But that’s not all we do. Our specialty is helping clients experience the least amount of stress possible while maximizing the amount of money they get from settling an estate.”
In some cases, the difference has been substantial. Take, for instance, a client named Nina.
When her mother died, Nina was left with an overgrown farmhouse on an opposite coast. Offered $750,000 as-is by a local house-flipper, she planned to fly in, pick a few pieces of furniture to keep and sign the papers. But after learning about Paxton’s company, she decided to go a different route.
“The place was an incredible mess and took us eight days to clean, but it was totally worth it,” says Paxton with a laugh. During inventory, the crew found paperwork for a retirement account, an investment account and others totaling more than $200,000. “We also found the deed for a farm Nina’s mother owned in another state. That property was valued at $500,000.”
After cleaning and some quick landscape improvements, the home sold for $900,000. Though Legacy Navigator billed Nina $27,000 for their services, she wound up netting more than $1.5 million. Additionally, Paxton was able to ship her her Mom’s antique furniture.
Looking back, Mark cites dealing with his mother’s untimely death and bickering with his brother over settling her estate as the most traumatic event of his life. What’s worse, it’s tainted his memory of mom.
“Whenever I think of her, [that nightmare] is what comes to mind,” he says. “Like, why did she have to go and leave me that mess?” It took nearly a year and a ridiculous amount of time, stress, misery and money to get everything settled, and he barely broke even. While they were by no means great friends before, at this point, Mark says he’s disavowed his brother for good. “Unfortunately, I expect it will be a long time before I can think of my mom without getting pissed off.”
Tragic as it is, Paxton, Jarrell and Rossettini say the experience is disturbingly common.
“As a parent, the greatest final gift you can give your children is to plan ahead and prepare for death beforehand,” says Rossettini.
If you don’t, not only will you set loved ones up to get ripped off and suffer unnecessary stress, but you risk tarnishing their memory of you forever.