How to look after your children when you die – nine essential tasks for death admin

No parent usually plans to make their children orphans, but sometimes fate has other ideas. Here are nine ways to prepare for the worst – to protect your children if you die.

What would happen to your children if something happened to you? Or you and your partner or ex partner Would your children end up as orphans with no financial provision or home? What would become of them?

As grim a thought as this is – and as hopefully unnecessary – it is important to consider when you have children. Because, as much as we expect to be able to be around for our children, and guide them into adulthood, there are no guarantees. And if the worst were to happen, you need to make sure your children are taken care of.

This point came sharply into focus for independent HR consultant Ruth Cornish after she was made guardian of her late sister’s children. As a result, she felt compelled to share her experience, and advice, to help other parents avoid some of the same mistakes and heartache.

How to look after your children when you die

I wanted to share with you a sad family tale in the hope that for some readers it resonates and spurs them into action.

My beloved sister was diagnosed with Stage 4 ovarian cancer in October 2011. By the following August she was dead at just 44-years-old leaving her sons (nine and 12-years-old) in the care of their father. At the time of her death she was estranged from her husband, living alone, coping with cancer and two young boys.

After she died my brother-in-law took over. We saw him and the boys once or twice a year and got the occasional email to say how well the boys were doing under his care. All was amicable and life went on.

My eldest nephew had stopped attending school when his mother was ill, and this pattern continued. He was diagnosed as autistic and whilst extremely gifted in maths and computer science, had dropped out of main stream education, becoming totally reliant on his father for everything. His younger brother has always excelled at school.

In August 2017, five years after my sister’s death my brother-in-law sent us a devastating email. He had been diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer and it was inoperable as already into his liver. He was given six months to live or two years with chemotherapy.

He chose not to have chemotherapy (having seen what it did to my sister) and instead pursued the alternative diet route. Critically (because he still believed a cure might be possible) he chose not to tell his sons about his diagnosis.

Jumping to the end of the story, my brother-in-law chose to die at home and passed away in November 2018. His boys were never told by him about the true nature of his illness and this task was left to the family when he took to his bed and was clearly dying.

The youngest boy couldn’t believe It was true and when he realised it wasn’t a sick joke asked to be the one to tell his older brother which he did. What a brave young man! This was also the eldest’s 19th birthday.

After his death, the family attempted to piece together my brother-in-law’s paperwork as no death administration had been done. There was no life assurance so the house will have to be sold. There was no plan at all for the boys. There was also no history for the boys (education/friends/likes/dislikes/medical) and there was no financial provision.

Nine essential tasks for death admin

As you can imagine, what is a horrible situation for all the family, especially my nephews, has been made so much worse. So, I’ve felt compelled to write these nine essential tasks for death admin.

1) Make a will

My brother-in-law resisted doing this until a month before his death. My sister didn’t sign hers until two days before her death. As a result, both were very basic.

I think both felt that making a will would somehow accelerate their deaths. Clearly a will is a useful document for specifying what will happen to your children and any provisions or requests you have made for them. Also think about Plan B, if lightning strikes twice.

I along with one of the boy’s aunts were made legal guardians of the 15-year-old only, as the 19-year-old is now an adult (even if autistic). We met for the first time at the funeral.

On my sisters’ side of the family there is only me that can help. On the father side the family is large but spread out across the world. Critically no-one lives in the county that the boys live in which complicates everything.

Of course, the most important thing when we were thrown into this awful situation was to get practical and try and secure a future for the boys. As they are both teenagers, we needed to listen to what they wanted. More than anything they wanted to remain living in the community they had grown up in.

I offered to take them as did the other side of the family but that would have involved leaving behind everything they knew and for the youngest, leaving his school just as he was about to sit GCSE’s.

2) Tell your children about your diagnosis

You simply have to do this. When we first heard the news, we immediately advised that this was done, with the appropriate support. But my brother-in-law could never face it. He didn’t want to ‘upset’ the boys, but it was then MUCH MUCH worse for them that they found out so late and had no time left with him when he wasn’t gravely ill. His sisters had to tell the boys which was tough for them too.

For those left behind trying to pick up the pieces this has been much harder as we have had to deal with the anger of hurt bereaved teenagers who just keep on getting bad news – father dying, father dead, house got to go etc.

3) Find a home for your children to live if you die

The house has a mortgage and will have to be sold. The eldest is not deemed mentally capable of looking after is brother. Both these facts were known prior to tbe death.  My co-guardian and I therefore attempted to identify options before the father died.

However, we discovered that the Social Services system does not do proactive.  They kept on wanting to arrange ‘family conferences’ to facilitate the family identifying options for the boys. Basically, they didn’t want to incur any costs and terrified us both on more than one occasion with threats of placing the youngest in care ‘anywhere in the UK or Ireland’.

This was an attempt to get us to identify a private fostering arrangement or to have the boys live with us which they didn’t want and is a big thing to do for any family. We didn’t know anything about the boy’s friends or who were ‘friends of the family’.

We had never been told. And the thing about private fostering is that there is no money for it. So, whosoever you are asking to take in a 15-year-old boy would be expected to pay for him also. It’s a big ask and exactly the type of thing the father should have done whilst he was still well enough to do it.

Social Services refused to act until the boy’s father died. They also refused to speak to us as we did not have ‘parental responsibility’. Even when the boy’s father was slipping into a coma, they would ask us for evidence of his permission to speak to us. Even after we had provided proof from the solicitor that we would be getting PR.

Finally, they found a foster carer that was local. We had promised our nephew that he would choose and so he did have initially been terrified at the thought of going into care. My co-guardian flew in from abroad and went with her brother to visit the new foster carer and ensure it was right for our nephew.

It was a perfect fit and he moved in as quickly as possible. The couple have two boys of their own and one other boy of the same age that they foster. To say they are sweet angels from heaven would be an understatement!

The eldest boy is now alone at home with a family friend and a social worker looking in on him. This is all only temporary until the house is sold. Social Services have written us a formal letter to say that we have no right to make any decisions for him and that he wants to be independent, yet they keep asking us for information and help or to tell us of his unhelpful behaviour.

He won’t claim benefits and he won’t complete a college application. He doesn’t want to leave the house (that he was born in), but it will have to be sold as it has a mortgage and is also extremely run down and in need of major work.

4) Stay in contact with family and friends

Are all the people that may care for your children in contact? One of the many things I asked my brother-in- law to do before he died was to send me a list of anyone he had dealt with that I may need to speak to. He didn’t do it.

It would also have been advisable if he had got together anyone he was going to rely on after his death so we could begin to make plans and get to know each other. This was mainly his family who I didn’t meet until the funeral with the exception of his brother.

Also, so that the boys could see us there as Team B and know that there would always be adults in their lives that cared about them. His family have all been lovely and very supportive but we have all only just met which hasn’t been helpful.

5) Sort out your mortgage and life insurance

In this situation the house would always have had to be sold as it was an interest only mortgage. Obviously, it would have been better to have life insurance in place and if you haven’t got it but can still do so I would advise that you investigate this further. Many also don’t have the cover in place that they need – see the article link.

I am of the opinion that my brother-in-law should have sold the house while he was alive and moved the boys: either into a smaller property that was owned outright, or into a rented property and the money invested.

This would have meant he could have managed this change (with our support if he wanted it) so they had minimum disruption after his death. He could also have ensured that anything important – was put into safe keeping until the boys are older. My aunt rescued a couple of mildewing photograph albums when she stayed during the final weeks of my brother-in-law’s illness.

6) Get your paperwork in order – start good habits now

There is a huge problem with our move to digital. Unless you give people access to it before you die, it will die with you. The banks especially put up huge walls meaning that most ordinary people simply give up.

My brother in law had his bank statements on line and paid many bills like that. This means that the Executor has no access to any of it and so we don’t know what the outgoings are on the house as paper bills don’t arrive. This is a short-term worry for his son, who wants to know all the bills are being paid whilst he continues to live in the house.

What any executor needs is a file of the main paperwork and an overview of one’s financial affairs and other interests. Together with a list of account names and numbers and passwords.

None of this was available which meant the house had to be turned upside down to try and piece together some information for the solicitor to apply for probate. If you can face putting your affairs in order, this will be significant for your children especially once you have gone.

7) Understand finances – claiming benefits, free school meals etc

It has become apparent that my brother in law wasn’t claiming enough benefits and was also entitled to free school meals for his youngest which he didn’t claim so the boy ate less instead. MacMillan will help with advising on benefits.  The other thing was that his son’s benefits were paid into his bank account.

Getting the boys set up – with bank accounts, registered with dentist, tracking down NI numbers and updating passports has been difficult as well. Basic documents like birth certificates are missing too.

8) Identify and agree options

One of the good things to have come out of this sad situation is that my youngest nephew has been offered a fully funded place at a fabulous boarding school in Surrey to study International Baccalaureate after his GCSE’s. He was given the choice to do this and visited the school and met the head master. He is excited about it and being academic should thrive and flourish in this structured environment.

Social Services initially threatened that if we found him a boarding school place, they would withdraw the support of the Foster carer, however we are hopeful that this will be left in place as ‘respite care’ until he is 21. The school said he could have gone sooner – after he had lost his mother as his autistic brother has had the majority of the attention.

The school offer a 50% bursary and the rest is funded by charities like this one. This aspect is co-ordinated by the school, but it’s something to consider after the death of a parent.

9) Leave a voice from beyond the grave

Neither my sister nor her estranged husband left messages or cards or memories for their children.  That is a shame in my opinion. I notice my youngest nephew is especially hungry for any scrap of information about his parents and loves photo’s especially. So much has gone to the grave with them.

I think that leaving a card for key birthdays or events is a lovely thing to do.  So many hospices now are supporting making a memory box or leaving your voice from beyond the grave.

Don’t throw stones – why would you try and hurt the people left?

After those nine ‘dos’ for death admin, we have one important ‘don’t’ for anyone watching someone else try to deal with the fallout of loss.

We have had a hellish time since the death, battling with Social Services predominantly to get some foster care for the younger boy and the right support for the older boy. But also dodging the sharp tongues of a few people who know nothing about the situation or what we have done to help. It has totally taken over my life and has almost broken me and my co-guardian who also has a busy stressful life.

I started a GoFundMe to provide a small financial cushion for the boys and this has raised over £4,000. One of my sisters’ friends (who has not seen the boys since she died) decided to lob great big sharp stones at us when she heard about the fund raising. I was never quite sure what her point was beyond that she was highly critical of us despite not knowing what we were actually doing beyond fundraising.

“I don’t care how any of you feel about my comments and actually the fact that the boys are going to be with friends rather than family on Christmas Day says it all to me. I think your family are letting the boys down badly and throwing money at the situation isn’t the answer, it may help with the basics, but money doesn’t change what the boys are going through and facing. I just hope the boys are ok.”

The Future. It’s early days yet for us and the boys. We have a meeting in January 2019 with the Social Worker who is supporting the eldest to explain the situation regarding the house and to see how we can support them/him to enable him to become more independent. We hope he may go back to college as he is talented with computers. We intend to move him to his own place and set him up comfortably.

His younger brother seems happy. He likes being with his foster family and is at last being mothered. In the first week she had him she took him shopping (we provided the money willingly), had his hair cut, got him to the dentist and signed him up for a fencing class he’d always wanted to do.

Both boys totally blow me away. I’m hugely proud of them both. With what they have had to face and how they have dealt with it. They are extremely intelligent and both have bright futures I hope. I have talked to them both about how after bad things come good things and the fund raising we have done is as much for setting them up with the basics as it is for fun.

We had a frugal Christmas in our household this year with our children especially getting less, understanding that their cousins are less fortunate and need our help. It’s been positive for us all to reflect and appreciate what we have and to acknowledge that others are less fortunate.

If you are able to contribute to our fundraising for the boys we would be very grateful – here’s the page. Thank you.

Ruth Cornish (FCIPD) is an independent HR consultant and runs Amelore, a Coaching and HR consultancy.

Photo by Annie Spratt