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  • Writer's pictureChelsea Burns

Will Your Employees Get Paid On Time If You Pass Away?

Shortly after the funeral I was sitting at my father’s dining room table, the same one I had dined at growing up and the same one I had counted out oxycodone pills for my father just a month prior. The estate attorney, my family, and I opened the infamous blue binder and went through each document. There were so many questions: which properties did he own outright versus with Carolyn? Who did the bookkeeping for HB Parking and what type of entity was it? Which accounts were held in trust? Many of my answers to these questions were: “I have no idea.”

The attorney explained to me that as the designated executor, I would have to contact the City of Alexandria to initiate closing out the estate. I googled the number, was redirected to this and that department, and then left a voicemail. I called back and left another message. At this point Jesse had flown back to Seattle and I was feeling anxious to get this meeting scheduled. I could not stick around Alexandria forever. I had a job back in Seattle that also required my presence, though I would later find myself commuting back and forth from Seattle to D.C. at least once a month while I took care of my father’s estate. I am forever grateful to my former employer who allowed me to take the time I needed. Had he not been flexible, I would have had to quit my job.

A few days later I received a call back from the Commissioner of Accounts office and scheduled a meeting. The important thing to note about the meeting with the Commissioner in the City of Alexandria is that the executor cannot access the decedent’s accounts until the commissioner gives you a stamp of approval stating that you are indeed the executor. I felt great urgency to get this stamp because my father ran a small business and no one else had access to his bank accounts. His employees were paid every two weeks and I needed that stamp to ensure his employees got paid on time and that I could pay the $30,000 in upcoming rent due for the parking garages. In addition, medical bills started piling up. I started putting thousands of dollars of bills on my personal credit card. Talk about stressed out! (Important note: It is my understanding that no one but the estate is responsible for paying debts. Do not pay medical bills on your personal credit card immediately after someone has passed away. You have plenty of time to handle these claims later down the line. It is not urgent. Do not worry about due dates. I really wish I had known this the first 2 weeks after my father passed away. It wasn’t until I had my meeting with the Commissioner that I learned this fact. Getting employees paid on time, however, is a very different story. I will address this situation in a later post).

The commissioner, my step mother, and I all sat down in his office. He handed me a thick packet and explained the process. He made his point very clear. From that point forward it was my responsibility to carefully manage the estate’s accounting. Every single dollar that came in and every dollar spent must be recorded over the next year and a half. Since I was an out of state resident, the court required me to post a bond, a type of insurance policy that protects the estate from losses should I mess up the accounting or improperly allocate funds. During this meeting my head was spinning. A couple weeks earlier I could not have explained what an estate was. Now I was about to experience first hand what being an executor entailed and the many frustrations that come with it.

After the meeting with the commissioner, I headed straight to the bank to get access to funds. My father was old school. He exclusively went inside the bank to deposit his money face to face with the bank tellers. For someone who ran a cash business, this was several times per week. When I sat down at the managers desk and she started to look over the paperwork, she began to cry. “Mr.Burns died? He is here all the time. We just saw him the other day.”

Moving forward I was in and out of that bank regularly. All the personal accounts had to be switched into estate accounts. The LLC accounts had other sets of rules. Joint accounts had others. At one point a top manager at the bank had to get involved because it was unclear if I had proper authority to access one of the accounts based on the language of the business’ operating statement. The entire process was mind blowing. I kept questioning: “Was my father the first business owner to die at this bank? Why is this so complicated?”

It was the million dollar question I would continuously ask over and over again for the next year and a half. While I recognized that my father had a complex estate because he owned real estate and a small business, he was by no means some great outlier in society. Plenty of people in the United States own more than one property and a small business. Why is closing ones’ estate so tedious? How can we fix it? These are some of the questions I will try to address in this blog.

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