What I Learned About Money After My Parents Died

A few years ago, I came home to my apartment in New York City after having flown upstate to Rochester. I walked in the door, put my bags down, and told my roommate why I had left suddenly for a week.

“My father died,” I said. He knew that my mother had passed away six months earlier. He looked up at me from the couch and said something that I’ll never forget.

“Are you getting an inheritance? Can you buy us a new TV?”

It was, and will hopefully remain, the single most insensitive thing that anyone has ever said to me. I had come to expect such callous materialism from him, so, I was stunned but not surprised. And while it wasn’t on my mind then, the truth was that yes, I was getting an inheritance.

I was inheriting everything my parents had and, in the process, getting a crash course in the practical financial aspects of death. I picked out my father’s coffin and paid for the funeral with money from his bank account. He and I had been through this process six months earlier for my mother. It was a small comfort that, having seen his preferences for my mother’s funeral and burial, I didn’t have to wonder what he might have wanted for his own.

I was now the executor of a will. I had an estate lawyer from my father’s Rotary Club who advised me on everything and charged by the hour, rounding to the quarter hour. I had to settle every bill: every credit card bill, every cable bill, every Verizon bill. I had to buy death certificates to certify that my father was, in fact, not responsible for the charges incurred after his death. No one believes a thing without the death certificate. And it had to be the actual death certificate, by the way; a copy would not suffice.

Until it sold, I paid the mortgage on my childhood home (my father had taken out a second mortgage to pay for my college education). This was also my first exposure to property taxes. So, just to be clear, I own this house but I’m responsible for taxes every year just for the house to exist? Oh, so that’s what Republicans have been complaining about all this time. I was relieved to find out, though, that the inheritance tax doesn’t apply when assets are less than a million dollars. So, uh, relax, Republicans, it doesn’t affect most of us. (And stop calling it the “death tax.” It’s manipulative.)

As this process went on, I discovered how personal money and debt could be.

My English born father was paying off extensive dental work at the time of his death. I worked out a deal with the receptionist at his dentist’s office where I would pay installments as money became available. The dentist found out about this and sent off an angry letter saying that she never agreed to it and if I didn’t pay soon, I would be hearing from her attorney! (The exclamation mark was hers.)

My family patronized her father’s and then her dental practice for close to thirty years. But, after my father died, the only thing that mattered to her was getting paid. She didn’t say, “I’m sorry, but this bill is still due.” No, as if she wanted to provide yet another reason to hate dentists, she went straight for threatening her patient’s orphaned son with legal action. My anger didn’t last long because my estate lawyer sent her a letter saying that the money was in escrow and the matter would be settled on the closing of the estate. Sometimes it’s nice to have a lawyer.

I ended up selling my childhood home because, while Rochester is nice, I wasn’t going to move back and I wasn’t making enough to maintain a house I wasn’t living in. I would say that I grew up middle- to upper-middle-class, but after a decade of living in New York City, my suburban home looked like a palace. Three bedrooms! A full, walk-in kitchen! A living room and a dining room! A basement and an attic! This place is amazing! Surely there will be a bidding war. I chose our town’s foremost real estate broker and waited for the offers to pour in.

The first offer that came in was $40,000 beneath the asking price with a $10,000 concession. That meant that after the sale of the house, I would give $10,000 to the buyers, ostensibly for improvements.

I was pissed. First of all, my house didn’t need improvements. Well, that’s not true — it surely did — but if you want improvements, buyers, you should pay for them your goddamn selves! This just seemed like a method to improve the selling price of the house and my real estate broker’s commission.

I was dating a girl at the time who worked in real estate, and she told me that this was just business and that I shouldn’t take it personally. While I appreciated her professional opinion, I assured her that yes I actually can take it personally: This was the house that I grew up in. This was the last house either of my parents lived in. This was the wrong time to try to lowball me.

Eventually, it worked out. I got a reasonable offer and sold the house. I settled my parents’ mortgage and all their accounts. The relationship with that girl did not last. Among many other things, she wasn’t on my side about my house. Like I said, it got personal.

This brings me back to my old roommate’s heartless question and the fact that, yes, I was getting an inheritance, which felt different than say, receiving a trust fund. The trust fund kid conjures images of an underemployed hipster who describes himself as a painter without ever having put brush to canvas in his Williamsburg loft.

While my roommate may not have been an actual trust fund kid, he certainly qualified as the most entitled brat I have ever met. His father paid his half of the rent. He never had money for his half of the bills, but he always had money for video games and new bottles of bourbon and enough money go out drinking from Thursday through Saturday.

One time, I brought home some new clothes from Old Navy and as I walked through the living room, he laughed and said out loud to no one, “Yo! Rob shops at Old Navy, yo!” His parents took him on shopping trips to Barneys. I paid for my own clothes, which is why I shopped at Old Navy.

When he was fired from his job for the third time in a year, his parents sent him to Europe for a month. I prided myself on not being like him.

I had held day jobs since graduating from college. My father took me to his financial advisor while making money from my first paid internship to open a mutual fund. I lived below my means and saved. If I ever wanted something, I knew I could either afford it or not, and I made those decisions by myself, on my own terms. But this money changed things. It came along and helped my life and I often have to stick my head in the sand about the guilt that comes with that.

I used the money to realize a dream a lot of people in New York have. I bought a home: a one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn that is roughly one-eighth the size and double the price of my childhood home. (And I tried my best to lowball the seller. No dice. I guess it’s not personal.) I had savings of my own, but without this money from my parents, it never would have happened. I was able to put down more and lower my mortgage payments. And, beyond that, I’m legally required to take distributions from their IRAs. So I receive money monthly that helps me with my payments.

All over the city rents are rising and luxury condos are being built. Working middle class people are finding it hard to live in a decent home relatively close to work. But not me: I have an apartment in long ago gentrified Park Slope. I was able to make it happen with money that I hadn’t earned.

I justify the inheritance to myself. I tell myself: I still have to work. I can’t live off of it, not even close. And I invested it pretty wisely in real estate. I didn’t blow it on a trip to Vegas, or a hip hop vanity video. But I have this advantage. I have a safety net that I’m sure my parents would want me to have, even if it meant that they wouldn’t be around to see me enjoy it.

Rob Penty is an improviser, storyteller, writer, and web developer living in Brooklyn. Check out his blog.

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