Finishing the Estate

Uncle Morris died at age 103 in November 2012, two and a half years ago. A death at that age can hardly be surprising, although he did surprise people by remaining lucid until not long before he passed away. I had never known anyone 103, had met only one who reached 100. Well, if you can do it the way Morris did, alert and staying in his own apartment, it sounds not bad.

I live in New York, Morris lived in Dallas, two thousand miles apart. But back a number of years, he appointed me his power of attorney and executor of his will. It's not the likeliest choice for those jobs, someone who lives so far away. With no children and no relative close by in whom he had confidence, the selection process got narrowed to his New York nephew.

Morris's attorney formalized the appointments in writing, but it must have skipped my uncle's mind to check with me if I was agreeable. I got the news after it had become a fait accompli, so it didn't make much difference if I was agreeable. I guess I was.

People of course compose their wills whatever way they want. Morris's background as an accountant seemed to re-emerge in the plan he devised for his estate: it granted A seven percent, B three point five percent and so on for eight or nine persons. Numerous fractions. I gulped when he showed me his will. "How as I supposed to settle this?" I asked.

"You sell everything and turn it into cash, of course," he said.

Came the time in November 2012 that I set out for my first experience as someone's executor (Morris had done that job for my mother). I figured it might go smoothly because my uncle was exceptionally well organized. (As he aged and his handwriting became shaky, he had a stamp made of his signature and persuaded banks to accept the stamp on checks he wrote.) When in Texas, I had gone with him and registered as co-signer on his safety box and bank accounts. Every trip when I was there, he would lead me into the little office aside his bedroom and show me where he kept important papers, including the little black notebook he used to record stock dividends and bank interest, all up to date.

He had made a list of every stock and the number of shares he owned. When the time came to open his safety box, I went through the stock certificates; they matched exactly what he had listed. I turned them over to a broker, and sold them, as Morris had counseled. In New York, nervously hauling a check of considerable sum, I went to a bank, opened an estate account and got a very warm welcome. The bank sent me a checkbook with my name as estate executor. Feeling of power!

That Morris left his affairs so tidy eased my job; that along with friends and relatives on the spot who dealt with court papers and local banks. A Dallas attorney did the legal work. Only about six months after Morris's death, early as such things go, I was told, I wrote checks for the first distribution of his estate. (Three point five percent of ...equals $... Morris must have been smiling in heaven.) A second distribution followed later.

Now, two years after that November day when my nieces and nephews and I said goobye to our long-living uncle, I've closed the estate's bank accounts and mailed the final tax return prepared by an accountant in Dallas.

I don't think every beneficiary of his estate was happy with the portion provided in Morris's will, but a will eliminates arguments: you just do what it says. I've tried to act in the way Morris entrusted me to be. Looking back, I'm glad he gave me the job I didn't sign up for, though along with the sense of accomplishments, I feel a twinge of regret that the work is done and the papers involved are packed away in a couple of large envelopes. What's left is my memory of knowing Morris since I was kid, lots of visits in Texas, a number of squabbles, many BBQ dinners and a generous portion of his estate left to me.

I've written my own will and am checking to be sure my little black notebook is up to date.

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Stanley Ely writes about Uncle Morris in his book, "Life Up Close, a Memoir," in paperback and ebook.