Family and friends who help care for a loved one expect to cook meals, run errands, manage medications and the myriad other tasks that help an elderly or ill person maintain their quality of life. What these caregivers aren’t prepared for is that their jobs often extend past the death of the person they are supporting.
That’s what we discovered when we recently surveyed 1,010 men and women who’d helped settle an estate, or assisted an elderly loved one with relocating or downsizing in the past five years.
In our National Care Survey, about 80 percent of caregivers told us they’d survived the recent death of a loved one. And more than 70 percent of those caregivers are unprepared for, or surprised by, the demands of dealing with probate duties, and settling an estate.
Estates Demand Extra Care
Blindsided by grief, today’s caregivers are pushed into the complicated logistical and emotional maze of probate and estate liquidation with little to no preparation.
Overall, just three out of ten said they understood what was expected of them, and felt confident in executing those duties.
Nearly 20 percent were caught off-guard, saying they “didn’t know where to start.” More than half said they were surprised by the responsibilities of having to make so many decisions. Adding to the demands on their time, about 44 percent had to drive long distances to manage the estate.
Senior Finances Are Stretched
The finances often catch caregivers by surprise when they are managing an estate liquidation. Just 24 percent in our survey said they fully understood their loved one’s financial situation beforehand. The rest said they either had no advance information about finances, or were surprised by what they found.
That may be a bad surprise — on average, Americans over age 65 only have about $1000 cash in the bank. About 72 percent of their net worth is tied up in home equity, according to the most recent Census data.
Probate involves recording the debts and assets of the deceased, and distributing the residual. It’s a complicated process, and having little understanding of a loved one’s finances makes it even more difficult and time consuming.
Family Dynamics Muddy the Waters
Just under half of our survey respondents were actual estate Executors, but the majority said they helped the Executor make important decisions during probate. Both of these caregivers faced family stress issues.
Whether it’s selling grandma’s antique kitchen table, or accepting an offer on the property sale, families often work together to liquidate the estate. The process can be rife with disagreements and misunderstandings. After months of navigating situations like these, 60 percent of caregivers named “dealing with family members” as their biggest source of stress.
Meanwhile, 70 percent of Modern Caregivers work full- or part-time jobs, and 52 percent of those aged 34-44 have families with small children. More than 77 percent reported missing significant time from work or at home with family — with that number jumping to 92 percent for those aged 34-44. The effect was so pronounced, more than one in three said time away from work and/or family was their biggest source of stress while settling the estate.
For many caregivers, this adds up to unforeseen disengagement at work and with family. Trying to balance a budding or peak career with family life is demanding enough as it is. Toss in unanticipated caregiving responsibilities, and it can be like trying to juggle and then being tossed a bowling ball.
Managing the Stuff is Tough
Following a death, 33 percent of caregivers said dealing with “the stuff” required the most decision-making during probate. Specifically, emptying, sorting, and cleaning out their loved one’s house.
From a stack of family bibles, to Grandma’s old sewing machine, to family photo albums, to the refrigerator and television, every item requires a decision. Sister may want to keep Mom’s china, brother prefers to sell it. Arguments often arise, and someone has to decide what to do.
Some aspects of dealing with “the stuff” are simply a pain. Rifling through dusty boxes and old filing cabinets looking for important documents is time-consuming and frustrating. So much so, 15 percent of caregivers named it their top challenge during estate liquidation.
Lastly, sorting through items evokes memories. This can be particularly hard if you’re grieving an unanticipated loss — which was the case for nearly half of our survey respondents. The effect is so powerful, 32 percent said the “emotional nostalgia of leaving the home” was the biggest challenge they faced when selling the house.
Caregiving comes unexpectedly, and can continue for months, or even years, after a death. Today’s caregivers are unsuspecting, and unprepared. Blindsided by a sudden loss, the demands of probate and estate liquidation can easily become overwhelming. As the stress mounts, these caregivers risk doing long-term damage to their home lives, relationships, and careers.