Some day, you may get the call. Uncle Charlie’s dead. It will be unexpected. You will be shocked, and sad. You’ll wonder if you could, or should, have done something. You’ll wonder why he never said anything. You’ll feel bad about a million, million things. Some of them things that maybe you could have done better. Others will be the ways our society completely fails the working poor.
This post is not about any of that. This is about the practical things that have to happen when someone who has fallen off the map dies, and you are next of kin. So here’s the pragmatist’s guide. It comes with the warning, as always, that I am not a lawyer, and this is not legal advice. You need some of that, hire an attorney. This is about your options when dealing with an intestate indigent.
An indigent is a person who lives in extreme poverty. Frequently called disparaging names such as bum, bag lady, trailer park trash, etc. If you get the urge to use these terms – we all do sometimes – don’t. That person could be your brother, you cousin, your uncle, your niece. Given years of loss after loss after loss, it could be you.
Intestate means a person who has died without making a will.
So you get the call from the coroner, the unknown friend, the police, that Uncle Charlie died an indigent, and as next of kin, you are responsible for his body. The coroner would like his slab back.
What do you do?
First, find a funeral home in your Uncle Charlie’s locale. The coroner’s office will recommend one that is reasonably priced. Call and make arrangements for them to pick up the body. Dealing with your relative’s remains is your first priority.
Once Uncle Charlie is at the funeral home, you have decisions to make. Assuming you don’t want to spend a lot of money, these are your options. First, cremation, with the ashes handed to you in a sturdy cardboard box. This will cost around $600 most places. You then get to decide what to do with Uncle Charlie’s cremains. I’m not going to advise you on that. There are tons of internet sites full of ideas of what to do with cremains. You can find those easily.
The other thing the funeral home will do for you is order the Death Certificate. You will need this. Ask for copies, I recommend at least 5.
The other option is to donate the body to science. It’s called Whole Body Donation. This feels like calling Dr. Frankenstein, but student nurses and doctors have to get cadavers from somewhere. All you have to do is pay for the funeral home to transport the body, and the donation location will take it from there. Including, at some schools, an eventual service complete with a student minister, student chorus, and student bagpiper. The cremains are buried on the university grounds, you get an invitation to attend. They are grateful for these donations. They will treat Uncle Charlie with respect, and his corpse will be helping others.
There’s one catch. No autopsy. If there’s been an autopsy, you have to go back to cremation, standing in a field with a box in your hands, and feeling like this is some crazy sad replay of The Big Lebowski.
Here’s a link for Whole Body Donation: http://www.sciencecare.com/
Now comes the part where you have to deal with Uncle Charlie’s estate, or lack thereof. There’s only one thing you need to do here, and that’s call the public administrator’s office. There’s a public administrator in every county, and their job is to handle the legal affairs of the intestate indigent. They will talk with you about Uncle Charlie, what he had, what you can afford to do, and what you want to do.
Let’s say Uncle Charlie had a car, and you want to sell or give that car to someone. The PA will prepare for you, free of cost, a Small Estate Affidavit. With that, and the death certificate, you can sell the car. You do not need to take title of the car yourself. You will have to have possession of the title of the car, which hopefully Uncle Charlie left in the glove box or in a box at a friend’s house. If not, you can use the Death Certificate and Small Estate Affidavit to order a new title from the DMV where Uncle Charlie lived.
If they haven’t been sent to the funeral home, you will need to visit the coroner who will give you Uncle Charlie’s personal effects. This will almost certainly include a wallet; it may include a cell phone and car keys.
What you do from here is a personal decision. Right now, you can walk away. You are not responsible for Uncle Charlie’s debts, if any. You are not responsible for notifying his friends, or going through any storage he had in a friend’s garage. You have done everything you must do by dealing with the body, and notifying the public administrator of his death.
If you do chose to go through his phone and notify his friends, they will be grateful. They may want to hold a memorial service for him of some sort. They may ask you for photos of Uncle Charlie for this. If you can’t, or don’t want to attend, it’s still a kind thing to help other people with their grief.
If you do learn that he had things stored around town, and you meet with his friends to go through his possessions, and then help them clear Uncle Charlie’s things out of their garage, that is a mitzvah. They will think well of you and appreciate the help.
If you contact the bank (with the Small Estate Affidavit and Death certificate) to close out his accounts, they will appreciate it. Also, if it turns out he was secret a millionaire and you are the next of kin, all that is yours. Though honestly, you have a better chance of winning the lottery.
I give you the advice that the public administrator gave me. Do not pay Uncle Charlie’s debts. If someone tells you Uncle Charlie owed them money, tell them how sorry you are, but do not pay it. As soon as you accept one debt, you’ve accepted them all. You do not want that. Neither do you need to file his taxes. You are not responsible for them.
Intestate indigents, in general, do not have houses, apartments, electric bills, cable bills, or any other bills. Because they are living on the street, or in their car, or if they are fortunate in their friends like my “Uncle Charlie “was, in the spare bedroom of a buddy’s double wide. You won’t need to worry about canceling any utility services.
You may choose, if Uncle Charlie left personal possessions, to go through them before donating them. Be prepared to be shocked, surprised, and saddened by what you learn. Uncle Charlie did not become an intestate indigent because the last five years went well for him. It’s entirely possible you will learn things that will break your heart. Be prepared for it.
I hope you don’t have any Uncle Charlies, and that everyone in your family has done well, and is successful, and happy. But if you do, and honestly most of us do somewhere, even if we don’t personally know about it, I hope this is helpful, and I’m sincerely sorry.