When I reach into my cold, rural mailbox from my warm, red car it's always with a sense of expectation. It's like the guy says on the television lottery ad, "Hey, ya never know." And so it was on Wednesday when I pulled out the anemic, post-holiday mail . . . a sale catalogue, a bill, a postcard from Mexico, a life insurance offer addressed to my late husband, and a mysterious envelope whose window indicated a check with my name on it . . . and Tom's, my late husband.
I opened that envelope first because I couldn't imagine who would send US a check. A quick glance told me that, no, it wasn't a lottery amount of money and it wasn't even from a source I recognized. It was our cash settlement from a class-action law suit I didn't know anything about, from a company I don't know anything about, who sued another company I don't know anything about. My take (actually OUR take) from this astonishing windfall is the grand sum of $4.12, which I don't plan on spending at more than one place. Given the way it is written to us two co-payees, I'm thinking that cashing it will require more effort than spending it. I learned almost four years ago that banks cast a dim view on cashing checks made out to customers who are no longer with us. They'll let things slide for a few weeks after the demise, but after that you're on your own . . . in more ways than one.
I was annoyed. Oh never mind, I thought, you weren't expecting it, it fell out of the blue and why should you let this bother you? I sat in the idling car thinking that probably a couple dozen lawyers added seriously to their corporate coffers and a couple hundred thousand people got $4.12. Most of us surprised newly rich will probably cash the check at the bank drive-thru and head for MacDonald's drive-thru, only to pony up an additional $1.77 for a happy meal.
Should I write to them asking for a reissue of the check in my name only? I've been through this before. The usual procedure is they return a letter demanding a death certificate, which would involve a second correspondence. I figured that $4.12 minus $.88 for two stamps = $3.76, and discounting the time to write the two letters, my happy meal was getting more expensive by the minute. The small check was falling quickly into that category of frustrating things I can't do anything about so I may as well just forget it. But it's the principle of the thing, sort of like the airline miles war that I waged after Tom passed.
I learned that his airline miles, which we held in a joint account, were not automatically, totally mine. Tom had previously redeemed our miles into tickets and it seemed they would permit only him to do that, not the interloping stranger he'd lived with for forty years. I had to formally notify both the credit card company and the airline of his demise and send them the required death certificates. The credit card knuckled under and cleared me for takeoff, but the airline had another little trick up their wing. They wanted Tom to sign the miles over to me. My third letter explained that he was no longer able to sign for himself but that he had given me that prerogative. Their return correspondence indicated that although his signature was still the preferred means of transfer, if I sent a copy of the will indicating the disposition of his estate . . . I mean honestly. I have yet to be able to jet to Georgia or even out of Jamestown for that matter. I've only been able to fly into a fit of laughter after discovering that flying into a rage affects my sleep.
If the airlines were frustrating, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania was stupefying. Amazingly, the IRS had no trouble accepting the fact that Tom was deceased and I was his widow. But Harrisburg apparently couldn't grasp that a man cannot still be paying taxes three years after he stopped earning an income, collecting social security or breathing. I convinced one woman in the Erie office that yes, I would like him back and if they could arrange that I would be happy to pay his taxes. She was sympathetic but unable to circumvent the big guns in the capital's tax office. They worked very hard at keeping us married despite the large number of back-and-forth forms, letters and phone calls. The worst part of all of this confusion was pushing to correct something that I wished was not so. Trying to unravel the red tape was actually scream-worthy.
I'm not at the laughter stage yet about Harrisburg's incompetence, but since things finally appear to be straightened out this year, I'll graduate to a quiet seethe. I'll save the laughter for now for the truly ridiculous . . . like the postcard from Mexico that was in that same mail delivery, dated and postmarked on Thanksgiving. I'm glad my Social Security check isn't mailed in Guadalajara.
Marcy O'Brien can be reached at Moby.firstname.lastname@example.org.