After my dad's suicide, I get his '64 Mustang

Legally the rest goes to his wife, because the divorce was not yet final

By Salon Staff

Published April 26, 2011 12:01AM (EDT)

Dear Reader,

You know, I write the headlines for this column. You might think some editor does it, and sometimes when the headline is a little sensational or cheap, I'd like you to believe "some editor" did it, but the truth is that I do it, even, or especially, when it's sensational and cheap. I can't help it. I was trained in writing headlines by David Talbot, King Kaufman and Gary Kamiya, whose lasting legacy to Salon is that it remains in some sense a "smart tabloid."

Anyway, apropos of nothing, a curious thing happens sometimes in the writing of a headline. It is necessary to condense an unwieldy document into a few sharp words and sometimes the few sharp words have a way of knocking one over, as if a hard, blunt instrument had been fashioned out of a loose agglomeration. That happened today.--Cary T. 

Dear Cary,

I can barely bring myself to write all of this. The blank screen is easier. And committing it all to words -- I sort of have no words. And I love words. But I'm really lost right now. And I think you give the most beautiful advice. And I could really use that. So I'm going to try.

About three weeks ago, my dad died. So that's pretty bad. I'm 25, he was 58, so I didn't really see this coming quite yet. He shot himself, so that's also bad. It's two whole separate things to deal with right there. His death, and his suicide. That all really sucks. My dad was both physically and mentally ill, on and off. I think I'm more at terms with his suicide than most people. He couldn't control his impulses, he was in a lot of physical pain and he had paranoia. I fully believe that he really didn't mean it -- he didn't leave a note, he bought new shirts and groceries that morning, etc., and I think of it really as an accident, an accident that he happened to be responsible for.

He had this car, this '64 Mustang. He spent 10 years restoring it. It was his main hobby. He always used to tell me, for years, that when he died he wanted me to have it. My stepmother was not a fan of the car. In fact, it was a big point of contention with them. I wasn't a fan of it since I'm not really a car person (I am so totally happy with my sturdy, ugly, '94 Honda that if it ever dies I'm just going to get one again) so I wasn't enthusiastic about the idea, but I didn't dislike it the way she did. I also didn't think this car was something I was going to have to deal with for a very long time -- if he even still had it in the 20-plus years I assumed he would have until his death.

But then he died. About a week after it all, I spoke with my stepmother. The thing with them was, they were in the process of divorcing. It was amicable, because he'd learned a lot since his venomous divorce with my mother years before, and they shared one lawyer and came to agreements on how to divide everything that way. He was in the process of moving out to the state where I live, about a week or two away from the move, when he died, but they were sharing their condo still, in separate bedrooms. He had all his furniture in that room, ready to move -- furniture he collected from countries like China and Indonesia and Korea and other places he and I lived when I was growing up. My stepmother put it in storage for me, was asking what I wanted to do with it all, etc. I said I wanted to wait, leave it in storage.

So then, yeah, a week later, we spoke, and I casually asked about the Mustang as well, and what was happening with it, where it was, etc. She didn't tell me at first. When I pressed more, she said her sons had put it up for sale for her. When I pressed even more, she said she already had a down payment, but that if I wanted it, they could give the down payment back. I wanted it. I was assured I'd have it. OK. But also, she said that it was still in probate, since he didn't have a will. That was unsettling, because I didn't think she could start selling things while they were in probate. It made me start wondering about other things -- land that has been in my family for generations, things I would hate to lose because I wasn't paying attention.

Now, a couple weeks after that, I asked her about who I could talk to at the probate office so I could try and arrange my trip to go get the car and the furniture and all that, along with his memorial service, to try to make it all one trip. But she was very closed on the topic, and the email response I initially got was not in her writing style. It was very cold and formal and clearly written by someone else.

So I called her, and that brings us up to now, today, tonight. Where I find out that according to her probate lawyer, she gets everything that wasn't already only in his name, because while they had planned out their divorce and come to a mutual agreement on everything, it wasn't official yet -- it hadn't been in front of a judge to be approved. So she was still married to him, and so she gets everything. I get his Mustang (which she now tells me was never for sale, she was just confused, and I believe her, but it doesn't inspire a lot of confidence) and another car he had in his name, and a hundred dollars he had in a bank account he had just opened in only his name (which seems like an obvious first step in getting ready to move all his assets). And presumably the furniture collection, which she had told me is in storage for me.

I'm sort of shocked. She didn't want the divorce, he did, and I get that, but that doesn't mean they weren't getting divorced.

I don't know what to do with all of this. It's not that I want his money, but I want all the things that he was taking with him on his move here, including the money. And to find out that I'm not, it's just another part of him I don't get to have anymore.

And I can't believe this arrangement seems OK to her. I don't think she's doing these things to be malicious. She's not like that. But she is very neurotic.

I'm a very level, rational person, and I come from a really dysfunctional family where I've gotten really used to letting stuff slide because I understand that most people (not all, but most) don't do what they do to try and hurt other people. I've spent my entire life making excuses for people though, and trying not to step on toes, and letting things slide and catering to everyone else's neuroses. I get that she's traumatized, but also, this is just fucked up.

I don't want to look bad, like I'm money grubbing, or trying to scam my father's ex-wife out of anything. She dealt with his mental illness and cared for him for a long time. But I'm so hurt and shocked that it didn't occur to anyone in this that I am here, and I am his only child, and I need to be counted in this -- that maybe I even have a right to all of these things. I don't know.

I don't even know.

I'm sorry this is so long. I'm sorry if it's not really going anywhere. I'm just all toppled over.

All Toppled Over

Dear All Toppled Over,

This is what happens. This is how it goes.

What can I offer you from my own experience? Well, I have noticed a few things.

It seems to me that we invest in the objects of a person's passing the hope we now know is hopeless. Our hopes persist in regard to his possessions. It is as though our hopes travel there. When we learn that our hopes can no longer reside in him, because he is dead, then our hopes travel to his Mustang and his money. It is there they take stubborn lodging.

It is hard to dislodge our hopes. Now they have traveled to a new place and have taken root quickly and strongly, as if fearing that this may be their last place. It is baffling and disorienting. Logic tells us there is no hope. Yet these objects call to us. So we build a shrine or create a foundation so that our hopes can have some agency, and it is as if now the deceased himself has some continuing agency. He has a foundation or a shrine, and so we are even able to say "he has," although we know he has nothing and does not even exist. The objects serve as "his." It is our stubborn hopes and dreams doing this, regardless of what we know or presume to know about the status of the dead.

(What will you do with the Mustang? I hope you will drive it. That would make a shrine of your driving.)

It is hard to accept that what we are doing when we divide his effects is investing in his few remaining objects the futile hope that the person lives on. It is hard to cut that link to the person who is dead. But eventually we let him go.

I'm not saying don't fight for what is yours. If you are in any doubt, especially if there is land or property of value, get your own lawyer. This whole property thing is separate from the grieving. It's all about the property now among the living. If there are things you want, or things you thought were supposed to come your way, please, consult your own lawyer and get an explanation. Find out what the law provides for. What the law provides for is not about individuals and their virtue. It's about what agreements were made, and are they clear and binding.

Some of what you thought he had planned for may actually have substance. If it has substance, it will be a substance discoverable in the law.

I am trying to speak to you as a grieving person and say yes, do grieve, what happened is a terrible thing worthy of your grieving. I am also trying to say, if there is property that was supposed to come to you, fight for it within what the law provides.

I am also saying, Try to keep the two things separate. Remember that everyone is grieving, and thus everyone is blurred; everyone is operating at less than optimal. Everyone is hurt and limping along.

So you are doing a lot at once, and it may feel like you're not doing it right or you're not doing enough. It would be normal to feel that way.

So much of this is hard to accept, which is I guess what we mean when we say it is hard to "process." (Do we really process anything, or do we just fight it until finally we accept it? Maybe that process of fighting it and finally accepting it is what people mean when they say they are processing it. Or maybe they just mean they are going through the process. It's the manufacturing implications that seem askew to me: as if experience were ore, or something rough we could refine.)

I do know this: When people die before we're done with them, we are left still with words to say. Maybe we were not done railing at them to change their ways. But we can still rail about their things, and we can still rail at the living, how they are not carrying out the dead's wishes, even those wishes that are now like smoke.

It is hard to accept the fact that all that is left now of your dad's wishes are those few that have been legally decreed and sanctified and certified. Whatever was not legally decreed and sanctified and certified is like smoke. It is hard to accept. It is stupefying and grief-making. It hits you in the chest and brings you to your knees.

And it is stupefying that having been brought to your knees by the stupefying awfulness of your dad's death you would not find strong arms lifting you up on all sides -- you, his only child, you who were promised the Mustang. I imagine it has been something like this for you: You, his only child, felt huge and singular in his eyes and assumed that other things would come to you too, because in your world there was only he and you, the direct, incontrovertible line from him to you, the sacred, unbreakable lineage, the blood bond against which any other bond, legal or romantic or sentimental, seems insubstantial, like smoke.

Yet those other bonds he had with other people, it turns out, are real too. There was his whole other life, separate from you. Now that he is piecemeal, scattered and torn, all his ties are revealed, and the ones that seemed most sacred are the ones least buttressed by law and contract. It is a terrible thing to realize.

That sentence, "It is a terrible thing to realize," seems like it has a "but" coming.

Let's not do that. Let's just say it is a terrible thing. Let's stay with what we know: It is a terrible thing to realize that only the promises that have legal force are still alive among us in the world. The rest of his promises have gone to the grave with him. It is a terrible thing to realize.

So find out for sure what your legal standing is. Don't count on others to look out for your interests. Everyone is grieving, and they all are thinking of their own hopes and dreams.

Sit with the knowledge and let it flood you for now. But consult a lawyer about the property.

Creative Getaway

What? You want more advice?


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