Folks, my 57 year old cousin dropped out of touch with me after Wednesday evening (day before Thanksgiving) and after leaving a phone message, trying Facebook, and then trying to call again but finding both her answering services being full, I called in a welfare check to the police. She lives 15 hours away from me, unfortunately.

They found her deceased in her home, rescued 2 of the 3 cats, told me the house was at least somewhat hoarded with trash and cat poop, and determined it was natural causes, probably a heart attack. After a full day of phone calls, messages and posts, there is one friend who wants to attend her funeral, and about 20 different tax liens and a sheriff's sale pending in January.

I was POA, and am executor and next of kin, and I found her papers and read details of the will to the funeral home she wanted and notified everyone I could reach; sadly only one cousin, one uncle, and one old friend have even been in touch, only the one old friend has an interest in going to the funeral. I'm relatively clueless about what to do now. I may be able to get off work long enough for a quick trip up there. Nevermind my emotions - angry at her for not disclosing the extent to which she really needed more help, angry at myself for not going up there for a visit in person (granted, she discouraged me) and for not calling in the welfare check sooner (she was probably, possibly alive on Thanksgiving day) and just grieving the loss and the lonely ending to a life mostly spent teaching and pastoring others. Looking for advice, perspective, and sympathy, not necessarily in that order.

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Well, more answers and it is not pretty.  Unpaid ax bills will take up most of the estate.  I got a Pennsylvania lawyer.  We have to probate the will and she did not notarize it so they'll have to directly contact witnesses. We did get the sheriff sale postponed to give the estate sale people a chance to do their thing and get that house in better shape for a regular sale if I can cover the 23k PA and Pgh tax bills.  I'm finding out if we might be able to negotiate an offer with the IRS for less as that is the really huge part. Knowing I had the option to walk away is not a bad thing.. actually I may still have it, but if and only if I can actually just claim some non-spousal benefits for which I was beneficiary (the death benefit is to the estate, so I can't access that for a while, if ever.)

Thank goodness for Dropbox, fax machines and scanning to e-mail!

I wish I could put up a picture of her medallion they give their deceased pastors families here; we all decided to have it put on her grave, and at least until the past few years she really did help a great many people in her churches. But she was quite ill in both mind and body and really unable to go on, would have lost her home one way or the other, really really should have sold it early in the game and considered going on disability sooner. I think her vision even went bad and anything she got that was in fine print probably went unread, and after a point, it all went unopened as well.  Sometimes being "fiercely independent" just is not realistic and ends up hurting everyone involved!!
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Tothill Jan 2019
Thank you for the update. I am glad you have sound legal advice.
Some updates. 

Found out she was at least not entirely friendless - people were just a little slow to respond to FB posts and messages, I've heard from quite a few now.  And great memories of better days on her FB page which I got memorialized. 

And she had a small but nice service at a chapel at Homewood Cemetery where she had a spot in the family plot, attended by some of her fellow pastors at least.

One person had seen her house a few months ago, and it was hoarded but you could walk through it, but there was actually massive trash and odors when I finally got in with the help of a locksmith.  A neighbor said she'd resisted most of his help and actually had not been putting out trash for some months.  There may be an estate sale but a serious cleanup is going to be needed. I will probably have to arrange to go back one weekend soon to help more.

She gets a death benefit, and as there was a bankruptcy (chapter 13, never told ANYONE!) some debts may have been discharged but there tax liens that I'm in the process of finding out the amount of.  I'll be reimbursing funeral and burial costs out of the death benefit, paying some debts, and need to know the amount of the liens before deciding to pay those and try to get the home in shape for a sale.  I have not gotten an attorney yet but have some names and numbers unfortunately there are some she never paid so had to get new ones and maybe never paid them either.

He will stipulates making sure her cats are OK.  I rounded up the one they had not found when they first got to the house and found her, and all three are at a nice animal shelter ( I'm not finding the lady who said she'd take the cats, but I continue to reach out.  At least they are all three Ok now.

As for other papers,  I have probably most of what I need and the calls and faxes and all are starting up in earnest. 

THANKS to all of you for caring words and practical advice - I knew I'd get some here.  Blessings for the holidays to everyone!
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Oh Vicky, I’m so sorry, it’s quite the shock. 57 is pretty young. It sad & bewildering to think that ones circle gets smaller to nonexistent and once pleasant home became a horders nest. One of the saddest scenes is passing a cemetery when there’s a burial and there’s just a single person graveside.

You have a lot of emotion right now, you can put some things on “pause”. If the FH still has her in holding, you may want to think about adjusting her wishes. If she had a fully paid pre-need that is beyond fortunate.But if not the costs could be 7-10k. If it were me, I’d opt to switch to cremation & get a lovely box / urn and have her in your home. Perhaps scattering on the downlow where other family is buried or places where she was happier years ago.

Can you get time and a friend to go with you up there to go thru paperwork BEFORE you talk with a probate attorney and take on the responsibility & costs to be an Executor. I’d be concerned that if she has several tax liens, that this is the tip of a debt iceberg. To me, you need to get a bead on just how much debt she had let slide and owes. Unless she died with $ in the bank or a life insurance policy with her Estate as the beneficiary, this is going to be all negative equity and negative energy for you.

Just cause theres a will, it does not need to be filed.
Often folks do a will and over decades all their assets have been sold or spent. So probate & Executor is unnecessary.

Sheriff Sale, do you know if sale due to:
- a property tax sale OR
- from a judgement that could place a lien on property OR
- House was collateral (securitized) for loan defaulted on
To me, these are very different to deal with. This is Tacys point too, why the sale is happening makes difference.

I’ve done tax sales, and how definitely they are for the buyer to actually own property depends on states laws. Like for LA, tax sale buys are full of problems to fully clear title & really not worth it to me unless it’s the abandoned property next door & you like taking chances. While MS has a set, priority established 3 yr redemption to get name change & quiet title process to get more solid ownership if you need lending on it. Both states allow the owner or heirs to pay the past due and if done before sale, the sale is cancelled. Interest will be significant, usually 18% -30%. Yeah could be quite the sum.

The other two.... judgement lien sale & the securited collateral I don’t have experience with. If house was securitized collateral, it may be that sheriffs Sale is actually a foreclosure. If foreclosure, game over imo.

Here’s my suggestion, try to see what’s on-line as a downloadable document on property. Usually you need the PPIN to get to the parcel, PPIN not address. Tax assessor or collectors office can tell you this, if they seem friendly & helpful ask them to email you her last tax assessor / collectors bill, so you have an idea of its value. It’s public info, so not an privacy issue like HIPPA stuff you deal with. But some co. tax offices want you to pay for every page & stapler. Anyways you online access list of everything ever filed on property. You can kinda tell what filings mean RDOT = Release of Deed of Trust. So you can decide which to pay a fee to get (pdf usually). Downloads cheap, like $7.00 for Warranty Deed. Maybe pull all paper attached to property for less than $100. It will tell you how much debt on it, by whom & when her world started to come apart.

If it’s a foreclosure, there have been notices in local newspaper, so you can try Legal Notice sections if newspaper allows free online access....

if this is is a jumble of debt upon liens upon judgements, you can flat just walk away from dealing with it. You have to be realistic as to how it effects your practice & homelife. Have her buried or cremated, hug her few friends and drive away in tears may be best. Big Hugs 2 u💕
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Don't beat yourself up over this you did the best you could. She only told you what she wanted you to know. I am sorry for your loss.
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I’m so sorry for your loss and the ensuing trauma you’re going through. Just an idea, but could you hire a local (to your cousin) attorney to handle all this for you? It may save you traveling time if there were someone local to do this.
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How heart breaking for you. Please do not beat yourself up over not calling for the welfare check earlier. You called when you felt it was time to do so.

It will be challenging to settle her estate from a distance. If the house is the only asset and it is up for a sale in January, you need to find out if it is worth your doing anything at all with it. It may be easier to just let it go in the state it currently is in.

She may well have alienated others, as she did you and it may not be worth the time, expense and effort to have a funeral for her. Although you mention Pastoring for others, so perhaps a small religious service is in order. In my part of Canada, most people are cremated and memorial services held in their honour.

Many people find it easy to offer help to others, and very difficult to ask for it in return. It maybe your cousin was ashamed of how she was living and could not ask for help. Yes, if she had asked for help, it would be easier for you now, but that is all water under the bridge.
Helpful Answer (5)

I'm sorry to hear of the loss of your cousin. I know it must be very sad and frustrating. Does she have the funds to pay for a funeral? I'd keep in mind that the POA ends at her death. I might contact an attorney in her jurisdiction to explore what needs to be done and what the state of her estate is in. There is a hierarchy of how the creditors are paid. Do you know if she had a Will?
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Oh, VS, how sad is this!

Sometimes, we can only help folks as much as they allow us to.

Given the tax liens and Sherrif's sale, it sounds as though she was not paying bills, etc. Have you been able to talk to any neighbors?

I'm so sorry for you loss.
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igloo572 Nov 2018
Barb, excellent suggestion.
I'm so sorry. What a mix of emotions you must be having. I don't think you can be angry at yourself. You did the best you could with the information you had. Can you tell us more about your cousin - the teaching and pastoring. Maybe it would be helpful to celebrate that part of her life.

It sounds like dealing with the house will be a huge undertaking - especially if there has been hoarding. If she had any resources, is there any way you can hire out having it done? I believe there are services that will deal with cleaning up hoarding situations. Maybe a quick trip up to retrieve anything of value and then just pay somebody to clear it out?

Best wishes
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