Financial Planning | Life | Personal Finance | Relationships & Family | Article

What Happens When Both Parents Pass Away?

by Sophia | 22 Oct 2019 | 9 mins read

By the time she turned 24, she had already lost both her parents.

Her father succumbed to cancer and passed away, it was sudden and it affected Joey deeply.

A year later, her mother’s health began to deteriorate. It wasn’t long before she, too, fell prey to cancer and passed on, leaving the great task of carrying on to her eldest daughter.

Looking back, Joey reflected that her father’s passing hit her harder.

“I cried more at my dad’s but not at my mom’s,” she said. “It’s because I was mentally prepared by then.”

Joey recounts the harrowing experience as the eldest daughter, left with the task of picking up the pieces and taking care of her younger sister. It’s one thing to have to grow up before you’re ready, but stepping into the shoes of a parent in the absence of both mom and dad?

It was a tough ride, from start to finish.

Joey remembers the time she had to oversee both funerals as the eldest one in the family.

“I had to settle both their funerals. It was the worst,” she told me, “because everyone was crying. But as the next-of-kin, you need to put up a strong front. It was mentally draining because everyone came to me and cried and I was like, “Okay, okay!””

To add to her existing burdens at the time, Joey also struggled with taking care of her teenage sister – both financially and otherwise.

“I’m more like my mom, independent and street smart. My mom brought me up in a harsh way and put me through all that so I could also be like her,” Joey said. “But that didn’t work out for my sister.”

When it comes to being her sister’s guardian, Joey prefers to keep things simple and handles most of the work herself. “When it comes to money and whatever [inheritance] that was left behind by our mom, I handle it for [my sister].”

There was only one problem: Both parents failed to leave behind wills, which proved to be a huge stumbling block.

Cleaning up

To start with, Joey needed to settle whatever was related to her parents’ assets. This included their bank accounts, CPF, and insurance claims.

But before that, she had to attain the Grant Letter of Administration due to the absence of a will to speed things along.

“We had to open up a case and file it with the court before they could check on my mom’s remaining assets, especially to check if there were any that I didn’t know about,” Joey explained. “Then the court documents will come back, I have to sign them to confirm my status as beneficiary – then the estate will be under my name.”

Her sister, having not yet reached 21, could not qualify to be a beneficiary as a minor, and required two adults to watch over her as well as the estate. So Joey turned to her uncle for help and got him to stand in as a co-owner of the flat.

“Then I brought that letter to HDB so I could declare that I was in charge of the estate.”

Next, she closed their bank accounts. The process went fairly smoothly, according to Joey.

“It was quite straightforward at the bank,” she said. “All you need to do is show the death certificate and your birth certificate to clarify that you are the rightful next-of-kin to close the accounts.”

Her mother had gotten health insurance from AIA that covered “all her cancer treatments and hospitalisation fees,” but when Joey went over the policy again, she realised that the plan didn’t allow for death benefits.

As for her father, Joey recounted, “He didn’t get any insurance because he was too broke to.”

Growing up too fast

It was a stressful and taxing time for someone only in her early twenties.

Not only was she grappling with the sudden passing of her father, but she had to wade through an administrative swamp on her own and deal with the aftermath of her father’s assets – in addition to struggling financially through it all.

It goes without saying that it was a period of high stress and frustration, at times, to the point of tears for Joey.

“They left me behind to clean everything up,” she said frankly. “But at the end of the day, I have to do it anyway.”

And shortly after her father’s passing, they hit a huge roadblock when it came to CPF matters. Joey’s father didn’t nominate anyone as beneficiary, so they had to physically show up at the CPF building to retrieve his savings with the help of her mother.

The lesson was learned quickly; Joey urged her mother to nominate a beneficiary, moved by an urgency to settle things before more trouble came their way. “But she didn’t know how to do it, so I did the paperwork,” she said.

“It was all on my shoulders while juggling school,” she reflected.

“My mom didn’t cope well after my dad’s passing.”

Cancelled debt and external support

There were some bright spots for Joey, even when cancer struck her mother a year after her father passed away.

When it came to their mother, Joey still did most of the legwork. But this time, her younger sister chipped in to help for their mother’s hospitalisation matters, whenever Joey found herself too busy.

She also noted that her father “didn’t leave much after he left,” with the exception of some debt owed for a private car.

“We told them we were unable to pay, because it was just a cancer-stricken mom with two daughters who were still schooling,” Joey said, looking back on a difficult situation. It was debt that hung over their heads for a while – debt they had no way of paying back.

“Thankfully,” she added, “they didn’t chase us for payments because my mom was the guarantor for that car. So now that she’s not around, they’ve probably sold off the car or written the debt off already.”

Today, Joey is still schooling at an arts school, and is set to graduate next July. She’s currently working in an internship where she manages art direction, and will be finishing the brief stint next month.

To support herself and her sister, she works a part-time job in addition to receiving support from her parents’ church at $500 a month to pay off utility bills, town council fees and home insurance.

Her future plans include possibly entering into a freelance career as well as pursuing a degree in the future. But overall, a sense of loss in direction still hangs over her.

“I don’t know where to go,” she admitted, “But I’ve been doing good, at least.”

From handling two funerals, one for each parent, and swimming through administrative waters while watching over a younger sibling, Joey’s come a really long way. She’s learnt a lot more about life – especially when it comes to preparing the essentials like insurance coverage.

“It’s important to settle [these things] early on in life,” she reflected. “Prior to getting them for myself, I asked my friends if they had any knowledge about stuff like insurance. But guess what? Many of them don’t know, because their parents bought it for them!

“After my dad passed on, I realised the importance of having insurance to rely on.”

Looking back

It’s been over three years since her father passed on, and only a year since her mother’s passing. Since then, Joey took some time off to take care of herself during recent school break this year and also put her part-time job on hold.

“I still have to put away my parents’ belongings and to also find some closure for myself,” she said. “For some things, you just have to rely on yourself.”

And the road to closure may not be smooth for her. She admits to holding some resentment towards her parents for “many things,” but chooses not to dwell on it because it is ultimately a fruitless act.

She looks back the episode with mixed feelings. Her mother often caned both siblings over the smallest mistakes from a young age, and “did not support my wishes in life, either.”

And as for her father, Joey remembers how he had been “the root of all tension at home.” Support never came easily from her father, even if it was just needing extra pocket money to hang out with friends after school.

“But I felt my mom tried her utmost best, though her husband gambled our happiness away. It was all really, really stressful. Maybe that’s why she was always so harsh – she had no one to confide in, so I had to bear the brunt of it as her child.”

She concluded, “In the end, after growing up, I have to understand why they were the way they were and accept it so I could forgive them. But it was hard – we had very few happy memories.”

Moving forward

On maintaining a strong front, even to this day, Joey said, “If I were to be vulnerable in front of friends and relatives, it would cause them to worry more. I don’t want that. Everyone has enough on their plate. And I’m sharing this story for those around me to learn how to treasure their loved ones more, especially when they’re still around.

“If you have a bad relationship with your parents, remember that nothing is perfect.”

Apart from school and caring for her younger sister, Joey makes an effort to be there for her maternal grandparents, who are still coping with the loss to this day.

Things have certainly been tough for her, but she remains steady through it all.

“It sucks that I have to start adulting before finishing school at this age,” she admitted, “but life goes on whether you like it or not.”

Joey’s tale reminds us that in the end, no one is really able to choose when they leave, so taking the pains to keep one’s affairs in order smooths out the process for loved ones to move on from death – and eventually get on with life.