Longwood Florida Attorneys
Tragic Results When No One Knows You Are Gone

Tragic Results When No One Knows You Are Gone

The subject of this blog may be unpleasant and uncomfortable for those with gentle spirits or stomachs, but it addresses the unfortunate topic of bodies discovered a significant amount of time after death.

Sadly, our office has dealt with more than a half dozen cases over the last few years where someone who lived alone passed away, usually of natural causes with their death undiscovered for weeks or even months. If you have a gentle stomach, you may want to stop reading at this point. I will try to be general in my discussion, but this difficult and painful subject needs to be considered as death will eventually visit each of us. How and when it arrives cannot always be known, but planning is needed on multiple levels, particularly for those who do not have close personal connections willing or able to step up to the plate to help those who live alone.

Often, the sole occupant of the home has become isolated from neighbors, family and or friends except for a pet or two. We have entered homes where there is of water and food for the pets, but unfortunately, placed beyond the reach of the pet, who has then also died a painful death from lack of care due to death of the owner.

Usually, the body of the individual is undisturbed, but clearly, damage has occurred in the home. As time goes by and utility bills remain unpaid, the power is off, and in Florida, mold and mildew increase depending upon the season. As most homeowners do not regularly keep windows open, there is no air circulation. Food in the refrigerator begins to rot and often Insects and rodents begin to occupy the home. If death occurred while meal preparations were underway, there are open food containers and soiled pots and pans. Certainly not all sole dwellers are hoarders, but most would be horrified to contemplate others going through our personal possessions after we are gone, as it is rare that others value all that another finds important. The reality is that someone must go through a home when there is a death and dispose or distribute items.

Gone are the days when the milkman or mail carrier noticed when someone did not come to the door and started to investigate a missing occupant. If mail accumulates in the box, it may be returned to the sender, but rarely, if ever, stays in the mailbox. Thus, once the death is noticed, banks statements, bills and all other mail are no longer available for clues as to assets which may need to be located to pay funeral and probate expenses, none if which may be easy to access.

One of the surprises that family members may encounter with a death of a loved one, is that a body usually is not moved or removed until the coroner makes a legal determination of death. Obviously, the coroner may be busy, and one must wait hours for the coroner to arrive. If there is any reason to suspect unnatural causes, law enforcement may require all to wait outside the home. I recently spent hours in 90 degrees plus heat with a nice deputy sheriff, waiting for clearance to enter the home where I found a body through my efforts to locate the occupant. I had nice chats with neighbors, the coroner, animal control, and swatted a plethora of insects and even held a remote court appearance during my wait. It was less than a pleasant way to spend my day, but it was necessary to secure the home and locate critical paperwork.

Animal control may have to be involved to determine cause of death for the animal and then remove it, as sometimes cause of death for the animal helps verify its owner’s death as natural or otherwise. If the death was a result of homicide or suicide, the coroner’s decision may have impact on insurance and/or inheritance issues. Information provided for the death certificate may be hard to ascertain and a delayed release of the death certificate can hold up access to IRA or payable on death accounts. If a relative is unable to verify the identity of the decedent, DNA tests may be required to firmly establish the identity of the decedent. All of this takes a great deal of time to establish.

Where a decedent has assets in a public storage unit and due to death or illness has not paid monthly fees, the contents may have been sold and thus family photos and other special items may now be non-existent. Vehicles may need new batteries, grass needs cutting, and code enforcement violations may accrue. Often vehicles and other movable items are missing and virtually impossible to recover.

How is one to address these problems? After my father died, my mother made a point of ensuring that she spoke on the phone every day with me and with friends who also lived alone. I spoke with her shortly before she passed away one evening. The next morning, when she did not answer my call, I was not initially alarmed, as I knew a housecleaner was due in the next thirty minutes. A facility housecleaner found my mother’s body and I was located within the hour. Though I saw my mother the day before her death, in the hours before I was able to enter her dwelling, people had come and gone and jewelry and money that we saw a day earlier was gone. I will never again see my mother’s engagement ring.

Death is rarely easy. But it can be even more traumatic for survivors who are not in close contact with the decedent. I strongly doubt that any decedent would have wanted their pet to die alone of food and thirst. Each of us needs to contemplate unpleasant consequences of unexpected death. How do we want to be remembered? Do we want cremation or burial and how will that be paid? Who will inherit our assets if we have no will? Will a relative we dislike will end up with our possessions?

If you live alone, consider mending relationships with estranged family members and friends. Consider who, if anyone, would notice if you did not leave your home for a few days? Who would take care of your pet if you could not do so?

The topic of this article is not pleasant, but it is paramount for anyone who may have solo friends or family or for those who live alone and are not particularly fond of others. As an attorney, of course I think that proper planning for death and inheritance is important, but I also explain to my clients that I am equally concerned with what happens to them before death – and immediately after death. Like it or not, we all need to have others in our life. We should not be so determined to live alone and unfettered that we negate the importance of getting medical attention if needed or have our death go unnoticed to the point that it makes our deaths undignified and yes, even gruesome. Generally, making provisions for the unexpected is far less costly than people believe. We have a policy of speaking with each of our clients once a year and in knowing who to contact in the event of emergency. We want your life and your death to be on your terms. And most estate lawyers I know feel the same. So, for goodness’ sake – and the sake of your pets and survivors – please consider having a daily contact person and consider planning for your demise. Until then, live well and be happy.


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