Lessons learned – Critical Information Gathering

Part 2

As recounted in a previous article , losing a parent for those of us living overseas carries some extra challenges. During my own ordeal I learnt some hard lessons that I wanted to share.

In Part 1 “laying the foundations” I outlined how my sister and I leveraged off available technologies. This allowed us to scramble and start ordering and saving valuable information we needed or would need, at the time our father fell ill.

This article however goes a bit deeper into the kind of information gathering that we wished we had been able to do, long before the whole nightmare started.

The irony in our story is that back in 2016, both my sister and I attempted to get a plan in place with Dad to avoid problems down the line. We both had had personal experiences that highlighted to us the importance of having some basic knowledge and elements in place. However, trying to get Dad to act was impossible. All we got was “not to worry, it was all taken care of”, or, that he was going to or had made an appointment with his Notary, which of course never happened. I wish I had been more forceful and proactive at the time. Hindsight is such a great virtue!

My recommendation is to start with what you know or can find out on your own. That will help you to have a more specific conversation with your loved ones as well as identify what you don’t know. For example:

  • Find out what your responsibilities are in your home country towards your parents? E.g
    • Are you expected to pay for their medical bills
    • Pay for a retirement home/home care
    • Pay for their funerals
  • If your parent was to become unable to look after themselves or even make decisions:
    • What can you do now to have the authority to act in their behalf and protect them and their assets?
      • E.g. In France we used a Mandat de Protection Future
    • What services and help is available to them (e.g. home care, nurses visits etc)
    • If your parent has to be institutionalised, what are the options? Costs etc?
  • Get to know the succession laws in your home country
    • Is a Will needed or not
    • what is the max timeframe between death and funeral (this is important if relatives have to travel from far away)
    • What are your legal requirements
    • Who has to be notified and when (in some cases, it is within 24hrs)
    • What is the succession process, milestones, timeframe and costs
  • Understand how Taxes (income, local, state, succession etc) work and when returns need to be lodge
    • deadlines and timeframes
    • Consequences of missing deadlines
    • is there online access
    • Local office contact details
    • Tax agent used by the parent(s), if any
    • What taxes and cost are associated with successions
  • How much do funerals cost?
    • Consider your options carefully; some are merely payment plans with very high interests’ rates.
    • What is your parent wish (e.g. cremation or inhumation? Religions?)
    • Does the family own a plot in a cemetery? Where? Is there room?
  • Do you have someone, local to your parents, that you can entrust with a Power of Attorney, should the need arise?

By no means is the above list definite, if anything it shows how one question leads to another.

Information you might have to get from your parent(s):

This for us was the biggest hurdle and a complete failure. We tried to get some information out of Dad back in 2016 and it was like asking a teenager to do their homework.

If your parents are open to the conversation then make the most of it. The more you know and understand, the better prepare you can be and have everything in place. Also you will discover what you don’t know and need to know or act upon. This will not only save you headaches and money but will give you the most important thing: time with your parent, when it is needed.

The other sad reality is that when it comes to elderly care, cost and availability are key factors that define what choices are available.

Generally speaking, nobody wants to talk about death. Some parent might also be reluctant to discuss the repartition of assets between siblings, or even some of their wishes. At best, all you can do is stress the importance of having a family notary or lawyer and to have a Will or at least some clear instructions. This is important not only after death of course, but also long before that, should they become unable to make decisions or express their will. Some decisions about care etc will have to be made and that responsibility could most likely fall on you.

Some of the details to get from your parent include:

  • Contact details of their General Practitioner and Specialist(s)
    • If possible, get to know these people, or make sure you are known to them
  • Contact details of the family Notary/lawyer and financial adviser
    • Again, try to know these people or be known to them
    • Discuss what legal measures can/should be put in place (e.g. in France a Mandat de Protection Future)
  • Where are the bank accounts with?
    • Banks may need a specific document signed despite having Power of Attorney
  • If a Will is in place, ensure that it has been properly registered and is valid
  • Contact details of the executor of the Will
  • If a Will is required but nonexistent, then you will need to press for this to be done
  • Where is their pension(s) coming from
  • Health insurance (Private mutual)
  • Medicare or equivalent
  • Home & Content Insurers
  • Car insurers
  • Life Insurer, if any
  • Local Tax office
  • Credit cards
  • Loans
  • Get added as a contact/authority under key accounts such as:
    • Mobile phones
    • Cable TV
    • Home/Internet phone
    • Utilities
  • Ideally, use/setup online access to those accounts for your parent(s), especially if you live some distance away
  • Last but not least, make a list of their friends and contact details

Then there are those delicate questions:

  • What are your parent wishes, for example DNR, retirement home, palliative care
  • What is your parent funeral wish (e.g. cremation or inhumation?), Religious or not?

It might sound self-serving to ask parents what their assets are. However, when someone passes away a Notary will have to aggregate the deceased assets and liabilities and identify who is entitled to the succession. Accepting a succession may, as it does in France, means you also accept responsibility for the debts of the deceased, so this is no trivial matter. There also are a number of methods parents, while alive, are able to donate assets to their children without incurring taxes of fees. This is worth investigating when you consider that one of the most common family assets being the family home. Over the years it might have significantly increased in value and inheriting it might result in significant succession costs and/or tax bills.

Overall, while getting some of those answers can be challenging and emotionally draining, having this in place will be a blessing when the time comes. The key word here is “time”, our most precious asset.

Lastly, when someone passes away it doesn’t all end there and then. Successions can be a lengthy and costly process that also includes emotions and tough decisions. Managing that process when living in a different country and with time zones is a challenge. Any pre-emptive preparations will lessen the burden significantly.

Disclaimer: I do not provide any kind of legal or financial advice. You should seek counsel from professionals on those matters to ensure it suits your situation. The advice provided is purely based on personal opinion and experience.

Lessons learned – Laying out the foundations

Part 1

As recounted in a previous article , losing a parent for those of us living overseas carries some extra challenges. During my own ordeal I learnt some hard lessons that I wanted to share.

This first step is about laying the foundations for information safekeeping and sharing before anything happens. This is not about the emotional turmoil and dilemmas you might be facing. In our case, our father was diagnosed with terminal cancer without any previous warnings; we were not prepared; we had to scramble. I was faced with the decision of staying with him in France or going back to my life in Australia, I chose to stay with him. The process does not end when someone passes away either, as another starts. For that it was a few more months before I could return to Australia.

The first step is to start collecting information and documents and keeping them in a central location as early as possible. For that, we leveraged technology. Getting started before anything happens to your parent will free up precious time and resources at a time when they’re most needed. This is even more so critical if you have siblings or live at distance. This of course assumes that like my sister and I, you have total trust and are open to share information.

From a technology perspective we needed to securely store documents as well as be able to access them at anytime, from anywhere and with any device.

We also discovered that internet speed in our hometown in South West France was abysmal. We only had ADSL at home and poor cell tower coverage outside the main towns. It was at time very frustrating. So being able to have offline access was critical.

So here is what I recommend:

  • Cloud base storage to keep copies of important documents. We used GoogleDrive, but there is DropBox, OneDrive and others; store:
    • Birth/death certificates
    • Livret de famille (France)
    • Photocopies of passports, ID cards (certified)
    • Power of attorney
    • Insurance policies
    • Vehicles registration papers
    • Property titles
    • DNR or other instructions (if there are any)
    • Medical certificates
    • Medical records
    • Doctors death certificate with cause of death (required by insurances)
    • Photos
      • Including photos of jewellery, paintings, furniture
      • Pictures of documents taken with phone
    • Personal Banking info (IBANs, RIBs)
    • Proof of residency less than 3 months old (you will need this for Tax purposes, opening bank accounts etc)
      • Water, gas/electricity bill, phone, rent
      • Tax File Number/TIN (USA) and other documentation required for FATCA
  • Scan/upload important documents and old mail, so you can access at any times from anywhere
  • Scan all relevant/important incoming new correspondence
  • Save all outgoing correspondence, including emails
  • Gmail account to be share between siblings (for all electronic correspondence with banks, insurances, notary etc). We use Labels to reflect the Cloud storage structure
  • OneNote, to share research, web links, daily to do lists, notes taken on the run, drafts etc
  • Get online access and go digital as much as possible for:
    • Banking
    • Taxes
    • Insurances
    • Agencies such as Medicare and pensions
  • Password Manager (eg LastPass, 1Password)
    • For your own use and your parent(s)
  • Local cell phone/SIM Card to have a local number and data access (it might be easier to have one added to your Parent existing account if overseas, more on this in future article)
  • A Skype subscription and credits and even getting a Skype (VOIP) number or similar. This allows you to get calls redirected to you overseas at a lower cost and send SMS.
  • Excel to start keeping tracks of bank accounts, loans, investments, expenses
    • In France, the first stage of a succession is for the Notary to collate the deceased assets vs. liabilities. Having already done this gave us a head start.
    • Keep a spreadsheet of who is spending/paying for what (this is important between siblings too)
  • Create Word templates for emails and letters with your contact details as well as the Notary/Will executor contact details. Being consistent in communications is important. We came to realise that we were not a fluent in French as we were in English!
  • Keep a good size USB key on your key-ring; you never know when you might need to copy something (remember to virus scan!)

In my next post I will look into the facts finding or discovery that you can do remotely, long before anything goes wrong. In the meantime, feel free to drop me a line or comment below. By no means is the above meant to be an exhaustive list, and everyone’s case is unique. I hope it can guide you to being better prepared.

Things worth scanning: one of my best friends (Maité) and I when we were ~ 7 years old

Disclaimer: I do not provide any kind of legal or financial advice. You should seek counsel from professionals on those matters to ensure it suits your situation. The advice provided is purely based on personal opinion and experience.