Death and (estate) taxes

1. Pick a day, any day

Having spent my childhood concerned that my parents would die at any moment, I chose a career that allowed my continued fixation with The End: I became an estate planning attorney. I invited death into my life, and I visit with it daily. Sometimes death arrives via text: Mrs. Olsen died. Her daughter says please call. Other times, I see death on my call sheet. My assistant posts to it: Chloe died of Alzheimer’s today. Her son says he needs to see you. My assistant does not know I have known Chloe for twenty years and that her death is not a “to-do” for me. I cry when I read the entry.


2. Too old to stick around

When they had me, my mother was forty-one and my father was forty-two, which in the early sixties meant they were “older” parents. All my friends had young parents, and mine seemed overly aware of their age. My father frequently reminded me how old he was and told me he probably wouldn’t be around for me like he had been for my older siblings. Once, while he lay on his bed reading the newspaper, I asked him to promise me he wouldn’t die. He looked at me and said, “Honey, I can’t promise you that.” When I left for college, he set aside some money for me so that I would be able to finish my degree even if he and my mother weren’t alive. When I was forty-seven, my father died at age eighty-nine, and my mother lives on at ninety-three.


3. Surprise visit

I make house calls when a client is too ill to come to me. Once, I visited a woman, and we discussed her assets. She told me her husband had died years earlier. I asked, “Did you own this house then?” When she indicated she and her husband had owned the house, I responded, “So then you now own it in your name?”

“No,” she answered, “I own it with my daughters.”

I pondered aloud, “That’s unusual. I would have thought you now own it because your husband died.”

Long pause. “Well, you see, I killed him.”

I froze, composed my face, wondered if this was a murder confession, and continued on. The “slayer statute” prohibits someone from benefiting from a death they caused, so she was unable to inherit her husband’s half of the house and it went instead to their daughters. After she died, I found out she had been the victim of domestic abuse and killed him in self-defense. She had not stood trial because she was ruled incompetent.


4. Choosing your time or having it thrust upon you

Then there are the suicides. I can count them on one hand: a man who shot and killed his lover, then shot himself; two who overdosed; another who hung himself. The survivors who come for help with the estate administration appear numb, lost, tense, angry, and confused. They cling to the probate and the paperwork as a means of dealing with the emotional chaos. Sudden deaths by accident result in similar reactions, except there is less anger. I invariably end these consults with a hug, wrapping my arms around the client, trying to convey some stability in the midst of what feels like being hit with a tidal wave. I leave the office after these meetings, sometimes in tears, sometimes just exhausted. I try to find joy in nature. I fend off the inclination to see death everywhere: in the trees, their green leaves, which will turn brown in time, or their bare branches against the blue sky, dark outlines signaling the inevitability of loss.


5. Do you know what to do with yourself?

Other days, death enters the door of my office in the form of someone who sees it looming, a person diagnosed with a few months to live. I sit and talk with them for a couple of hours about who will handle things when they are too sick to do it for themselves, who will tidy things up and administer their estate after they die, and who will receive their assets. I do not lighten my questions with euphemisms. I don’t say “when you pass” or “when your will is activated,” because that feels like a game. I ask the dying client about the disposition of his body, a question uncontemplated by the majority, and he flinches at the image. Soldiering on, I set out the myriad options. You can be buried (but where?), cremated (what next for the ashes?), set out in the woods to be observed by scientists for research purposes (how long does it take for a body to decompose? what insects will find you tasty?), buried at sea (it’s very expensive), mixed into the cement of a man-made reef and placed ceremonially into the ocean, buried green without embalming (this appeals to many), or zipped up in a mushroom suit lined with spores to decompose you without producing environmental toxins. Your ashes can be mixed in with dirt in a container, which has a tree sapling in it and will be planted in the ground. You can choose a traditional burial (the older the client, the more likely this choice), complete with embalming; the mortician, who probably never saw you alive, will apply makeup and dress you in your favorite outfit so your family and friends can walk by and lie about how good you look even as they feel repelled to see you stiff and gone and silent, looking “like yourself” only if yourself is a wax figure from Madame Tussauds and you slept without breathing all your days. Some don’t care what happens to their bodies, maintaining it won’t matter, recognizing that their bodies are vessels they walk around in but are not them. Now and then, I have conversations about the soul. One client wants his brain removed and preserved in the event that he (he being his brain) could be placed in a new body and brought back. I can’t help myself and ask, “Do you think you have a soul, separate from your mind? Do you think your soul, if you have one that is, will return when they put your brain in a new housing?” He says he wonders about that, too. Dutifully, I write it down and let the philosophical question go.


6. Plotting

I do not disengage myself from these conversations. With every option, I see my body in the process and consider what I think. I plan to be buried, directly in the ground, wrapped in a blanket, with no embalming. My preferred spot is our family plot in Natchez, Mississippi, in the cemetery that contains my father, four Confederate generals, and a section called “Jewish Hill.” With one hundred acres of history and death, its location in my birthplace appeals to me. My parents, who are my genesis, will be there. I have not researched how I can get to Natchez from North Carolina without embalming, but hope that dry ice will preserve me during the flight.


7. Directives

And then there are the signings. I suspect for some attorneys these don’t take long. The papers are stuck under the client’s nose and a signature obtained, no explanation needed. I lean toward over-explanation. I review each document and its import in detail. I have discussed the living will, which has the title “My Desire for a Natural Death,” so many times that I have memorized it and don’t need a copy before me. I parse out the choices. You’re actively dying, and there’s no hope for your recovery. Do you want tubal hydration and nutrition? You’re in a vegetative state (famous examples given), but you are not actively dying. Do you want it now? You’re at the end of advanced dementia, likely not physically mobile, and you can’t feed yourself or recognize anyone. Do you want food and water? The complexities of these choices can lead clients to look at me and ask what they should do. If I were younger, if I had not watched people die or talked to doctors and nurses multiple times, I might shy away from giving my opinion. But over and over, I have heard about the horrors of a slow ending, how food and water only make it worse and how the best thing is to let go if you are so close to dying that your doctor is reviewing your living will. I hear my father, a physician, saying, “Pneumonia is an old man’s best friend.” I tell my clients to make it clear that they don’t want to be kept alive, to be direct, to ask for death when death is near. I tell myself to do the same.


8. Just now

At the end of most signings, my client will ask me what happens if I die before he or she does. They don’t mean what am I doing with my money or who is in charge of cleaning up whatever mess I leave. They want to know what will become of their documents if they leave the originals with me. I try not to think too hard and say, “When I die, my law partner will write you and tell you I am dead and ask what you want done with your documents. I recommend you leave them with her.” Inside, the words repeat—when I die, when I die, I am dead, I am dead—and I go home and flop on my couch, and stare out my big window at the lush, ongoing world, and try to shake the ingrained sense of mortality and exiting that comes home with me. I understand the fragility of my breathing, the consequence (and inconsequence) of decisions, the illusory nature of money and what it brings. I pet my dog with vigor, appreciating the color of his fur, welcoming the cheek licks and the small sounds he makes when I pick him up. Moments telescope frequently. I could be a Zen priest.


9. Tough call

Other days, I push death away with humor and distance. I walk into my office and am greeted by my assistant, who says, “I have bad news,” to which I respond without affect, “Who died?” Often a name follows. “Got it,” I say (inside I sigh) and walk into my office, put my feet up, and pick up what’s on my desk. An hour goes by, and she reminds me I need to call the family. “Oh, right, thanks,” I respond, as if I have forgotten this person ended, when the truth is that I have been delaying. I steel myself, lift the receiver, dial, breathe, and summon up my empathy, which is real. Its realness is what makes it hard. I feel the pain as it flows through the line; I hear the distress and take it in. My heart is not numb to death, not when I talk with someone who has just experienced its robbery.


10. You can’t divide a rocking chair

In the aftermath, I watch family members tear each other up over the furniture, the jewelry, or the teacup that has been passed down the line for generations. I tell myself they are fighting over the stuff because the stuff is imbued with the person who died. But that sounds too good, and it is too good. Being near death every day raises the window shade that otherwise blocks me from seeing the blight inside much of humankind. Most people fight over money and stuff because it is valuable and they want the most they can get. I think of my siblings. I worry about what will be revealed in the four of us when our mother dies. I wonder if I am like the ones who fight. I hope my daily dalliances with The End have taught me something.

The rocking chair that belonged to my grandfather sits in my mother’s living room, waiting for a saw. We can’t all have it. I think ahead and make my plan. I will walk into her living room and remember her sitting in that chair. I know I will weep because she will never speak again, because all my conversations with her are over. I will wonder where she has gone and why she isn’t coming back. Then I will walk out of the room, leaving the chair for my siblings. I will open the front door and go outside and breathe as deeply as I can and take in the green leaves or bare branches and accept the ending I knew so long was coming. Let me see death in the trees and understand the intertwining of it, the symmetrical beauty of a beginning and an end. Let me then go home and keep living.

About the Author

Beth Tillman

Beth Tillman lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She has practiced estate planning and probate law for twenty years. This is her first published essay.

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