Thursday, July 1, 2010

Pass the Buck

The humiliation that we must go through for a measly buck.

Last October, after my husband had only been dead for one month, I decided I'd better begin the lengthy process of getting his estate in order. He had left me designated as the executor of his will. It was a time that my days had me completely lost in a fog. After the kids left for school, I sat on the living room couch, and stared straight across the room for hours. Once in awhile someone would stop by to check on me, and I would be briefly distracted, but then return to my catatonic state. By early evening I would finish up with the kids' dinner, homework, and do some laundry. When they were off to bed, or occupied with other things, I would find my way down to our bedroom, where I would collapse onto the floor heaving and crying for hours. Sometimes the kids would come into my bedroom to hold me, other times I was alone. I didn't sleep, and this continued throughout the night. The next morning I would repeat this routine.

This gives you some perspective as to my state of mind. Yet in spite of this, I began the tedious process, as I knew the I was to make financial arrangements for Michael's family. In the months prior to Michael's quick decline, we worked with his attorney, getting his affairs in order. Part of this included trying to get his retirement office to update his beneficiary information. Michael felt that it would be easiest for his life insurance money to fund an educational trust for his family, and leave other funds, like his retirement, to the kids and me. I began calling the various offices where he was employed. Most worked with me fairly well, and guided me when it was obvious that I was working with limited clarity. Unfortunately for me, his retirement office was not so kind, or thorough. I kept being transferred to different extensions, being told that this person, or that person, would call me back. As time went on it was obvious that these calls were being ignored. Eventually I gave up.

This past February I decided that I should go through all of Michael's records once again. That's when I realized that I had forgotten about this situation. I contacted the retirement office to try to retrace my prior steps. Again, began the transferring of calls. Eventually I just drove there, about 45 miles north of here, to take care of it in person. I handed them the death certificate, and asked what else was needed. "We will get back to you." Right. Now I know that I am overly sensitive right now, but I feel they could have been a little sensitive with me. What happened, was me being told I was not the beneficiary. Yes I know. We tried every month this past spring to get you to change the records. Besides I am his surviving spouse. "Were you legally married?" Of course. "We will need a copy of you marriage license so that our attorneys can look into this matter."

A month or two later I was told, "okay, we are told that as the surviving spouse, you are entitled to his retirement funds. If you want them you will need to formally send us a written request." Don't you have a form you can send me. "No, send us your request." That is about the time I sank into my deep depression. It's hard to believe from where I stand today, but I was really suicidal. Finally I came out of my deep depression, and sent them the letter in mid May. For the past few weeks I have been calling, asking if they got my request. I asked if they would please let me know. Silence. In time I began speaking with their two clerks several times a week. They began to recognize my voice. "Oh, so and so is not in, but you can leave a message." Oh, thanks. This has gone on up until today. Finally I had enough, and politely asked the clerk if there was an office manager, as I was tired of being ignored. The administrator I was transferred to began the conversation nicely, but quickly cut me off to say that it would take time to figure this out, and he will call me tomorrow.

No, you will call me today. Twenty minutes later he called to say that I have been leaving messages for the wrong person, that she doesn't handle this type of claim. Then why was I transferred to her over and over again? Then why couldn't she call me to explain this? That's when he cut me off, saying that I had waited too long to send in my request, and that I need to understand that they have been downsized due to budget problems, and I need to be patient, and understanding. What? That's when we got disconnected. Four phone calls later, I finally got him back on the phone. "Oh, I thought you hung up on me." No, why would I hang up on you? He then began telling me again that I need to be patient, and I should have taken care of this a long time ago. I stopped, and asked if he was at all interested in what I was trying to say. I pointed out that he had interrupted me every time I tried to speak. He finally said "I'm sorry, go ahead." I'm not asking you to speed up the process. I just want some acknowledgement that you received my request, and to let me know if you have everything you need. I also need to let you know that I am moving in two week, so if it is going to take some time, they will need my new address. He then said he would guarantee that this gets handled within the next two weeks. "Besides, we are only giving you the funds he contributed, and the interest on those funds." Was that really needed?

We are not talking about a lot of money here. Michael only worked at this job for a year before he got sick, then another nine months until he could no longer work. So please give me his parting gifts and I'll be on my way.

I had to deal with this while at work, and fortunately, most of my peers were out of the office. I was angry, and humiliated. I was made to feel like a greedy little person, who didn't really deserve to receive these funds, or to be bothered with. It's really a shame. Just a couple of months ago I participated in the Brain Tumor Walk with all the people Michael directly worked with. They were all so wonderful and kind. What a difference a cubicle makes.

All this for a lousy buck.


  1. I just hate this kind of bureaucratic crapola!

    In the first weeks after my dad died in 1999, my mom was stick-handled so much each time she went to her bank that she would come home crying and none of the stuff she went there for taken care of. Finally, I got so mad that I emailed the head offices of the bank which are located in Toronto. I sent them a rather nasty email telling them how their employees were traumatizing a recent widow so much that she was crying after each trip to the bank. Within minutes, I got an email back asking if we would be available to meet with a bank rep that they would send to Ottawa the next day. We did, and she was very courteous and helpful. We got everything sorted out within just a few minutes. She also said she would be talking to the employees of this branch and making sure they understood that they were not to cause my mother any further distress. I asked her why the bank doesn't have some kind of protocol on how to sort out all of the accounts after a spouse dies and she said this would be something they would now look as they had never realized how difficult things might be.

    Fast forward to 2008. I went into my bank (different branch but same bank) a few days after Don died. They directed me to their office and one of their employees pulled out a sheet with the step by step procedure for handling all of the changes that need to be made when a spouse has died. We went through the entire process which took about a half hour. There were never any problems after that.

    Unfortunately, I think it takes someone, or perhaps several someones, getting furious and going very far up the chain of command, in order to get action and effect change. If you haven't done so already, I'd be sorely tempted to send off a nasty email to someone very far up in that organization - and be sure to cc it to someone else - some agency that oversees these kinds of organizations. I believe I cc'd my bank email to the provincial ombudsman and some other agency as well - just to be sure that the receiver of my email knew I meant business. I wouldn't let the fact that this is a small amount of money bother you. Just state in the letter that you're furious about how you have been treated -- and think of how this could have been for some widowed person in a more dire financial state. Turn it into a cause. I think you would get action, but more importantly, you might make things a lot easier for the next person to come along. Just be sure to attach a well-documented account of what has happened so far -- point by point with dates and actions. I just helped a friend work on such a letter to get back money from automatic payments that were being withdrawn from his deceased father's bank account in the couple of months after his death. He'd tried all of the other stuff of going to the bank, phone calls, etc.. but nothing worked until he went way up the food chain.

    This kind of thing makes me wonder how often people give up and how much "income" the banks, insurance companies, and other agencies are making by giving widowed spouses the run around. Makes me absolutely furious.

  2. You are so right in all that you say. I do plan on following through with a follow up call to the administrator when this is all sais and done. I need them to realize how vulnerable we are in times like this. And, after being treated this way, I'm supposed to trust that they are giving me all the full information about what Michael's retirement/death benefits actually are. So much of their literature says for full information about surviving spouse benefits, talk to the retirement staff. Yeah, right.

  3. Dan, I hope you do follow up on this after. Lately, after reading about some of the run-arounds that other widowed people have been given with regard to pensions, insurance, etc... I feel that something needs to change. We are so vulnerable during those first months after we lose our spouses. We are tired and often having a hard time remembering things, our thoughts seem hazy. However, here we are, trying to struggle through the bureaucracy - filling out reams of forms, having to write letters, etc... It's interesting, but dealing with all of this stuff on behalf of my mom after my dad's death, taught me a lot about what to do after Don died. Within a week of his death, I made myself get on the phone for about 2 hours each day, and plow through all of this crap, whether I liked it or not. I had the goal of going on the road soon, and I wanted things settle a.s.a.p. I made myself be so hard and demanding of results from everyone I called -- and believe me, that is not at all normal for me. As it was, I was still trying to sort out problems 6 to 12 months later, but my attitude was one of just getting this the hell taken care of so that I could just leave it all behind later on. If this had have been my first time "going through the mill", I know things would have been in a mess and I'd probably still be sorting through some of it two years later. Anyhow, all that to say that I don't think the system is at all set up to treat widowed people the way that they deserve to be treated. That's something that needs to change.

  4. Dan,
    I feel for you. I have been having the same experience, but from my departed's family. They have made me feel like a greedy girl, only after the money - which I am sure you know, the little bit of money means nothing without him. It is a terrible feeling to be denegraded to the material when you are really living in the soul and spirit.

  5. I really feel you on this. I don't know why they can't treat us with a little compassion, a little human decency. I don't think that should be too much to ask for.