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You Can’t Take It With You, So Don’t Leave a Big Mess

by Garland M Baker on April 2, 2007

When expats die, their kin have to pick up the pieces

Can loved ones afford an expats death in Costa Rica? Are they ready for what they find here?

Recently, a man died and his sister had to drop everything — all her responsibilities in the States — and hop a plane to Costa Rica. He died of natural causes not as a victim of a crime or accident. She was the only family member who could afford the trip. No doubt, it was going to be expensive.

She arrived and was lost. She tried to piece her brother’s life together from recounts of friends. And, much to her surprise, her brother’s young woman friend.

Yes, her brother was living with someone a third his age. She was surprised at first. Soon after meeting her brother’s friend, she found this to be a blessing. The woman turned out to be very helpful. She assisted the sister with her brother’s belongings and pointed her in the right direction to find assets.

Her brother turned out to be a pack rat with bits of papers tossed in his dresser drawers. They filled three suitcases. Those tidbits turned out to be the key to her brother’s life in Costa Rica.

She more or less organized her brother’s belongings, giving most of what was in his apartment to the women friend. Everyone told her that was what her brother would have wanted. She did not want to lug apartment goods back to the United States, and there was nothing of real value. The brother left no instructions, and she did not know what else to do.

The sister’s next hurdle was to find a professional to assist her. She went to his lawyer. She figured out who it was from a note and a business card on a piece of paper. As it turned out, he was not much help. He did not know much about her brother. They had only worked together on a few business transactions.

Other people she met referred her to this or that cousin who was a lawyer, always interjecting not to trust others referred to her. There was an obvious game going on, competing over who would get her business and profit from her brother’s death.

Amid the senselessness of people, she was grieving. She was confused. And she was in a foreign country and did not know the laws. She called her husband to get a little family support and he decided to fly to Costa Rica to lend a hand. However, he would not arrive for days.

She decided to go through those pieces of paper. They were like one of those 1,000-piece puzzles. Just like a puzzle, they came together into a picture. Among the many interesting things she found, much to her surprise, were the pin numbers to her brother’s bank accounts. Her brother’s women friend had given her his wallet with all his debit cards. She went to the cash machine only to find the accounts empty.

She found this a bit strange, but not overwhelmingly so. She knew that her brother had decided to leave this country. He was no longer happy here. The peace and tranquility Costa Rica once offered and brought him here was gone.

The bits and pieces of paper — the puzzle — became clearer and clearer. Like a good novel, everything started coming together. She formed a hypothesis her brother was just days away from departing for another land. Finding old family heirlooms that should have been in a safety deposit box stuffed into small pockets of his suitcases confirmed this fact to her. Additionally, she found a receipt where he closed his bank deposit box.

Her husband arrived and together they continued to piece the puzzle together. A review of the deceased’s computer showed no other revelations.

One thing her brother left was his cellular telephone. She answered every call she could with her limited knowledge of the Spanish language. Many women called looking for her brother. When she explained he had died, they were very distressed, so she decided to meet some of them to learn why.

What she found was another surprise. Her brother with his modest pension was helping these women with their educations. One in particular told the sister she was no longer a maid because her brother paid her entire way through beauty school.

The puzzle was complete. She distilled her brother’s life into three envelopes. One marked Costa Rica, one marked U.S.A. and another marked expenses.

It cost $21,000 to deal with her brother’s death in Costa Rica. This included airfares for her and her husband, hotel stays, cremation of her brother’s remains, transportation costs around San José, lost work in the United States among many other unforeseeables.

The sister returned to the U.S.A. with her husband. She found an old will, some instructions regarding assets and the feeling people liked her brother. He was a good man, it appeared.

A person’s life boils down to papers in an envelope and people’s recollections. It also means a cost to the living. Can they afford it?

Expats usually live different lives in Costa Rica than they did in their home countries. Many have young girlfriends or boyfriends, whatever the case may be. Preparing loved ones with this information is also prudent so what they find here does not shock them.

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