No one plans for the worst.
Well, we didn’t!
We were the couple who would watch ‘Doomsday Preppers’ with uncontrollable laughter, snooty smirks and elitist judgement. We should have prepped. Not for another World War or an Apocalypse. But for a different kind of doomsday.
This is our fifth year living in the United States. We completed our graduate studies and found the right jobs to settle down and start thinking about our investments. We didn’t think about investing in the US, being ‘almost’ residents of the country. Our focus was entirely on building an estate in our home country, India. After getting married only six months ago, incurring necessary but vain travel and wedding expenses, we had just started to direct our earnings toward savings.
We had just filed our taxes as a married couple for the first time this year. Or rather, he filed it for the both of us. A financial milestone. We didn’t think of a Power of Attorney, and had only just started to evaluate the benefit of Joint Accounts and Credit Cards. We trusted each other enough to never ask about each other’s accounts or passwords. We split our living expenses and lived happily in this mutual comfort. Sounds lovely. It was too. Until Day 0 came.
My father would tell us that we were very careless! And he would be correct. It was very careless of us. We were proactively managing a rainy day, but not planning for when the storm came. We were living carefree. There was time. Enough time. We thought wrong.
My sister has done so much more than I can ever thank her for. She had the difficult task of identifying us at the hospital, rummaging through the packed boxes at our apartment searching for insurance id’s, contacting our workplace and bosses to inform them of our accident and finally getting our disability and paperwork started. By the time I was conscious and aware, my sister had got the ball rolling. I got my FMLA paperwork started, our disabilities underway and getting on the task to contact our banks and credit agencies.
I have no knowledge of how many bank accounts he has, or credit cards. No clue where our tax returns or refund are. Worse, I don’t know how many payments he has. His wallet was stolen from the scene of the accident, which made things even more difficult to sort out. I had his phone. That was a start. Or so I thought!
If you do not have a Power of Attorney, get one. Get one, NOW! You don’t have to be in a relationship, or married. Find your ‘person’. Your father, or your mother, or sibling. And get them a POA. It takes no time, very little effort and a lot less legwork than I have had to endure for not having a POA.
Without a POA, no one would talk to you. Not the Banks, Not the Credit companies. Even the phone and internet service providers refused to talk to me about Jitish’s accounts. I couldn’t do anything. Seven days after the accident, six days after my surgery, I was bound to a wheelchair, in a hospital, trying in vain to cancel his credit cards and report them stolen.
I couldn’t get a POA. I could get a POA only if Jitish had appointed me as “Attorney-in-fact” before the accident. Dead-end and panic. A stroke of fortune came in the form of the Social Worker at the UW Madison Hospital, Parini. She was the first to direct me toward getting Legal Guardianship of Jitish. Each state has its own Probate laws and provisions. A Legal Guardianship, also called Adult Conservatorship in some states, comes in many forms depending on the state of residence – Guardianship of Person/ Conservator, Guardianship due to Incompetency, Guardianship of Estate, Protective Placement/ Services, Temporary Guardianship and Guardian of a Minor. As Wisconsin Residents, I had to get Guardianship of Person due to Incompetency in order to make decisions on his behalf, Guardianship of Estate to take care of all financial and estate matters, and Protective Placement to be legally responsible of where Jitish would be medically treated. This was too much. I already had my head spinning from the accident, the knowledge of Jitish’s condition and the high doses of Morphine in my system.
Getting a Guardianship was a new and confusing process, with superficially simple forms, and appearance at the Probate Court. Jitish and I have always figured a way of doing paperwork ourselves, taxes for instance. Besides hiring a Probate lawyer was expensive at the time, a $1000 for this was steep. And so I decided I could do this myself. My father and me poured over the forms and searched the internet to learn. Take my advice. When you are already overloaded with serious matters and your head feels like a spinning top, leave the legal matters to the lawyers. Hire a Probate lawyer if you are pursuing Guardianship. I did. Thank you, Katie, for getting me in touch with the right lawyers and taking away a big stressor.
Being appointed as Guardian is no joke, and nothing short of a great responsibility. It is nothing like having or adopting a child. You become the authority, the voice, the advocate of this person. You are it. But with that comes the responsibility of all of their estate, finances, assets, and loans, debts, payments. For all legal and financial purposes, you are this person. Until the time that they can come back and gladly reclaim everything you have had to take up in their absence. On the 1st of July, I appeared in front of the Judge at the Rock County Court with my lawyer representing us and my father making sure I stay strong. It is overwhelming and unnerving to have my husband’s case being read out and the court judging my competence in being his Guardian. The Judge, in all his regalia, was surprisingly supportive. Seeing me shake and my eyes tear up, he decided to share a story with us first. A few months back a young gentleman met with a similar motorcycle accident and had to have a guardian appointed. Fortunately for him, he got better, came out of the funk, and walked into the courthouse a couple of months later to have his guardianship reversed. The Judge assured me to be hopeful and strong and said he would pray for us to walk back to court one day and reverse the Guardianship ourselves.
Big thing sorted, I carried on to plan the real work. Contacting banks at random, asking them if Jitish had an account, or a credit card with them, and sorting the paperwork to square away his finances. Some were wonderfully organized and disciplined and took care of matters professionally. Chase, you helped. I am going to gladly prescribe you as the most cooperative and supportive of banks there is. On the other hand, Citibank, you evil, twisted, pain in the butt. Citibank has no locations in Wisconsin, and so I had to go to Illinois, only to be told that I cannot do anything with the account since I am not in the state we reside. Oh well, so do I wait for Citibank to open a branch in Wisconsin? Thank you, Citibank. I am now your loyal hater. After two months of walking into the Michigan Avenue branch in Chicago, nothing came of it. You won’t stop to hear from me, Citibank. This is not the end.
As part of the Guardianship appointment, one is required to submit an inventory of all estate (assets, liabilities, income, expenses) within a 60 day period. I have tried to do my best in getting all these details together, however, in most cases it has been another dead-end. Find your state’s resource list for Guardians and POA’s. Make sure you are on top of things.
At no point should you make the mistake of thinking that you can do all this on your own. We do have a layer of complexity over all this, from not being American Citizens. But use all the help you get, lawyers, family, friends, coworkers, social worker and doctors. At the end of it all, believe me, you will need a counselor. Talk to them. I have found deep respect and solace from the counselors in our life; Katrina/Amanda from RIC and Melissa/ Parini/Dr. Medow from UWM. Find that unbiased voice to ground you and direct you.
Being organized is very important, you cannot be spending time searching for things. You want to spend the least amount of time scrambling and more time with your loved one. So, Stay organized. Whether you resort to saving them on the Cloud or go old school like me. I have started to record all important details in a filing system – blue folder for finances, green for medical, red for work details and expenses. I am my father’s daughter, and picked up most of my filing skills from him. Make sure you know where all your documents are and what the most important details are. You will be asked for the documents, repeatedly, at the bank, at the hospital, at work, by insurance, by lawyers and then by some more.
My task list, on Evernote, helped me stay on top of things, from saving details about our follow up doctor’s appointments, to billing cycles, utility payments, people I had to call. Evernote helped. Their business card feature helped me take pictures of the business cards I was handed from a hundred different places. I believe if you sign up using your Linkedin account, a few features come free.
Have your checklist ready. At the least, control the things you can control. Here is a working checklist I have been using that might help you.