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What happens when someone with nothing dies? 

Estate of solitude

click to enlarge Money matters, even in death. - MRKEVVZIME /SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
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  • Money matters, even in death.

One day, each of us will die — it's one of the only guarantees in life. And when that happens, it's up to surviving loved ones to memorialize the deceased. But what happens when a person isn't survived by friends or family, or when their loved ones can't handle what's necessary upon death, be that financially, emotionally or both?

Janet Ingram Smith has seen what happens, and she thinks it's a travesty. Smith, now 75 years old and living in Arizona, used to work in Colorado Springs as a caretaker for low-income people with disabilities, first at the Bijou House (a hospitality house for transient, recovering or re-entering adults, mostly male) and then at the Independence Center (a disability services and advocacy organization). Over the years, she had a number of clients die only to get stuck in limbo while their children, designated attorneys and human services professionals figured out what to do — and how to pay for it.

"To me, it seems unconscionable to hold bodies hostage pending payment," Smith says, "but in all my years I never saw a case sadder than Dean Stahl."

Stahl was her former client, who ended up in the Springs at 18 years old after taking a bus from a state mental hospital in Missouri where he grew up, having been abandoned by suicidal and unstable parents. She says he was disturbed by abuses at the hospital, never educated and severely overweight since, as Smith puts it, "his only pleasures were eating and singing."

Smith recalls taking Stahl in at the Bijou House, then helping him sign up for a Section 8 housing voucher, with which he landed a tiny apartment off South Nevada Avenue. After visiting him there, and finding the apartment swimming with trash, Smith implored him to clean up, to which he replied, "but I'm garbage." She made sure, after that, to invite him to every social function at the Independence Center — Thanksgiving dinners, Christmas parties and disability support groups.

Stahl had been rejected by everyone, even local churches, Smith recalls, since "he was so loud and obnoxious." But she took it upon herself, even after leaving the Independence Center, to "be there for Dean. Because that's all he really wanted, to be accepted and loved, which he never found, I think, until me."

Three years ago, Stahl started having respiratory problems and no home care service or nursing home would take him because of the special care associated with his weight. He was admitted to Penrose-St. Francis Health Services, then discharged to the only facility that would open its doors — a hospital in Jefferson County. Since Stahl had listed Smith, who he called his "mom," as his medical power of attorney, she was summoned to the hospital. There, she found Stahl on a respirator and feeding tube, with little will to keep living. So she made "the most difficult decision of her life" to pull the plug.

Smith thought her involvement would end there, but months later, after moving to Arizona, she found out from the public administrator of Colorado's First Judicial District that Stahl's body still hadn't been buried or cremated. The administrator had called to request reams of documentation related to public benefits Stahl was receiving. "I was just shocked at all the hoops there are just to put him to rest," she told the Independent.

There are, indeed, many hoops. It often begins at the coroner's office, where bodies first end up unless the person and their family directly made arrangements with a funeral home. Once there, bodies must be embalmed or refrigerated within 24 hours, as a matter both of state law and good practice, according to El Paso County Coroner spokesperson Sandy Way.

Staffers then begin tracking down the deceased's next of kin — a sometimes easy and sometimes quite challenging task. "If we run out of leads, or if their family stops calling us back, doesn't want to take responsibility or claims not to have money, then we pass the case over to the public administrator," Way says.

In this region, that's Catherine Seal — an attorney specializing in probate law who has been designated as the "fiduciary of last resort" in Colorado's Fourth Judicial District. Her quasi-official role, not state-funded, is part investigative and part administrative. First, Seal calls up local funeral homes she knows to be "good citizens," meaning they'll pick up the body from the coroner's office knowing they may never get paid. Also a top priority is securing the deceased person's residence and other personal property, often by changing locks. Seal's office works to re-home pets too.

Then, she continues the search, tracking down and reaching out to known family members. If the deceased person had assets and relatives can be contacted, she transfers the probate estate. If the deceased person had assets and the relatives are nowhere to be found, she liquidates their estate, crediting the state treasury.

But if the person had no assets, things get trickier since laying a body to rest costs money. Seal, at that point, typically contacts the El Paso County Department of Human Services to inquire about burial assistance — a program that will contribute up to $2,500 in state monies to cover burial, cremation or other funeral expenses, only if the deceased meets certain eligibility requirements.

The most important criteria is that the deceased must have been receiving public benefits at the time of death. Qualifying benefits, according to a fact sheet outlining the program, include Old Age Pension, State Aid to the Needy Disabled, State Aid to the Blind, Aid to the Needy Disabled/Supplemental Security Income-Colorado Supplement, Aid to the Blind/Supplemental Security Income – Colorado Supplement, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families/Colorado Works, Medicaid or the Medicare Savings Program.

If that funding comes through, Seal takes care to research the deceased's faith tradition, if known. She tries to honor their faith when choosing the disposition method, but often that's impossible without any other financial assistance since the maximum state contribution only covers cremation. Her office holds onto ashes for a year, just in case a relative reaches out.

Dean Stahl is one person whose death was handled by a Colorado public administrator, but there is no one profile for the type of person who ends up with a fiduciary of last resort. Seal says her cases run the gamut, with a few recurring themes: transient people who die on the streets; foreign-born widows of American soldiers; or stillborn babies whose parents are too distraught to go back to the hospital.

"You know, when I first started doing this, I wasn't prepared for the differences in the way grief manifests in people," Seal says. "But now I've been doing this for, gosh, 13 years now and I've seen everything. The mother sobbing on the phone after I had to tell her [that] her son died six months ago out on the street. The anguish in her voice ... I ... What can I say? I feel it."

Her office maintains relationships with organizations that try to help, like the Bijou House, which holds services for transient people, or Evergreen Funeral Home, which donates a cemetery plot for stillborns.

"The important thing with my job," Seal continues, "is to remember it's not just bodies to be transported, it's people with lives. So we really try to respect their humanity and respect their individuality, especially in these really tragic circumstances."

  • Estate of solitude

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