I cared for my dad in his final months -- but who gets his car?

The neighbor who took care of him before he died says he promised her his car. Should she get it, or should my sister?


Cary Tennis
November 20, 2007 4:39PM (UTC)

Dear Reader,

Last week's reading at San Francisco's Booksmith, celebrating the official publication of "Since You Asked: The Best of Salon.com's Cary Tennis," was a smashing success. It was a thrill to see you and talk with you in person and it was wonderful to be out in the world performing. Of particular delight to me personally was doing an "automatic reading" -- to paraphrase the surrealists -- of the book's "Index of Similes" -- an appropriately experimental and interactive bit. Deep thanks to everyone at the Booksmith and at Salon.

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Now, of course there is much to say about the book and what we have learned about independent publishing and so forth, and it would be natural for me to blather on and on about it. But this column is one thing and one thing only: a careful, literate dialogue between you and me. That is all it is and it must stay that way. If every time you came here I was trying to sell you a book, a T-shirt and a mug, that would not do.

So I will from time to time in the future direct you to carytennis.com for news about where you will be able to buy the book in stores around the country, how to sign up for my writing workshop, why we believe that independent publishing is the wave of the future, how you, too, can undertake an independent publishing venture, what we have learned in the process, plans for a book tour, etc.

But this thing here, this column, this is just a careful, literate dialogue between you and me.

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So enough about that.

Dear Cary,

My father passed away in September. He was 94 years old. My younger sister and I have never been able to communicate very well together. We have never been close and not until my father's death did we begin to talk just a little.

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My father had a will and it stated that he is leaving everything in his estate to me -- his home, car, all of the contents inside of the house and all of the money in his bank accounts.

Dad was a proud man and constantly asked to not be placed in a nursing home no matter how ill he became. There was a neighbor who came in to visit with him on a daily basis, bring him food and keep him company. He loved that. In fact, he loved everybody and anything that would bring attention to himself.

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I went back to the place I grew up in, the place I called home, to take care of him while he was sick during those last months. I left everything and everybody to go and take full care of him so that he would not have to go into a nursing home. His wishes came true. His faithful neighbor and I cared for him until he passed peacefully in his own home. After his passing and the funeral took place, the nice neighbor told me that she was having some problems with her relationship and said that she would be happy to come and stay at "Dad's house" sometimes to get away from all of the "nonsense" going on at her own place around the corner from Dad.

This is the problem. I live clear across the country. I live in California and Dad lived in Boston. I'm very grateful to her for all of the work she did in helping out my father for a year, taking him to his doctor's appointments, bringing him food and just keeping him company. I feel very blessed to have had her in his life and mine too for that time, but now she has developed an attitude of "entitlement." She feels that it is OK to live there, saying that if the house looks lived in, it will not be tagged as an abandoned home and get boarded up. She also feels entitled to drive his car since it just sits there in the garage otherwise. I have asked her not to drive the car because the registration and the insurance are about to run out. She drives it anyway. Not far, but still she drives it. Last week the alternator failed. She had it towed and now she is expecting me to pay for the new alternator and a few other minor things having to do with the car. She is also complaining that the house is beginning to feel very cold and would like me to replenish the oil it takes to keep her warm and make sure that the water lines don't break during these upcoming winter months. When she began taking care of my father, she said that she was doing it "out of the goodness of my heart."

Now she is saying that my father had promised that when he died that she could have the car. I told her that I would try and see that she got it, but that at the moment my hands are tied -- that my sister is not happy about the will, that she wants the car, and wants some of the furniture and knickknacks too.

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The problem is that Dad's attorney is on vacation. Someone else is helping, but that the real work cannot begin until he comes back from his vacation. Right now, the house, its contents, the car, everything is in limbo. That's because my father did not mention my sister in his will. My sister needs to sign the papers designating me as executrix of the will so that things can get rolling! However, she is not sure that she wants to sign the papers, saying that in his original will, he designated her as the executrix and that everything was supposed to be divided straight down the middle. He changed his mind and his will and has left everything to me.

The Surviving Child

Dear Surviving Child,

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I'm sorry for your loss. It sounds like your dad lived well and long, and died with dignity.

Your letter ends somewhat abruptly, without fully spelling out the exact question. But I think I understand the question. The question is, What do I do now?

How about this: You bide your time and grieve and be as loving and generous as you can be, within the terms of your father's most recent will. As I read your letter over again today, having read it a week or two ago, I find a cadence of peace and serenity in it. What you are going through is normal and to be expected. Whenever someone dies there are always unexpected details to be taken care of, disputes to be settled, questions answered. During the process of dying, we are focused on the person and the immediate situation. We do not think too much about how it will be afterward. Sometimes it is surprising, as though we were awaking from a dream to find the pressures of life.

People develop expectations during the period of a person's illness, and a person will say things and hint at things to bolster these expectations. But then the person is gone and there is no final word except the will, and sometimes the will contains surprises. So we grieve and we sort things out. We let things go.

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Keep in mind that mainly what you are doing now is letting go of him. The theme of your grieving time is letting go. So if there is furniture, for instance, that you do not need, let it go. If there is a car that you do not need, you dispose of it and let it go. Also we try during this time to meet the requests of others, because everyone is grieving. When there is conflict, however, then we need to turn to the will, whose word is final. For that, you need the authority of your dad's attorney.

So, since there is little you can accomplish until your dad's attorney returns, I suggest that for the time being you exercise patience and restraint. Make no firm promises but just wait for things to be settled. As a practical matter, it may be good to have somebody coming into the house and taking care of things, especially with winter coming. It sounds like a sensible thing to do to keep the place supplied with heating oil for the time being. Whether the house will eventually be sold or rented out, it makes sense to keep it lived in.

You don't indicate that you feel this person is being pushy or intruding, or is taking advantage, but her requests do seem to have taken you by surprise. So do consult the interim attorney -- the one who is filling in for Dad's attorney -- about any legal implications arising from her presence in the house. What is your liability if she should injure herself there? What is the insurance situation should the house catch fire, or should damage occur? And is it possible that by staying there she may establish some legal right of residence, such that if you wanted to kick her out, rent to others, or sell the house, you might have to settle with her financially? Also, you will want to consider the title and insurance situation with the car. These are fairly basic legal questions, and the interim attorney should be able to answer them or direct you to the right person.

As to your sister, I think you should be as kind as you can be without violating the will. If she wants some knickknacks and furniture, I would let her have those things. Since both your sister and the neighbor want the car, but you have inherited it, I suppose you will have to choose between them. Ask the attorney to help you figure that one out.

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Meanwhile, try to keep the peace. Your main focus now is on letting go of your dad.


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