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Home Sweet Home

Doris and Martin* were married for more than 60 years. He was 85 years old when he died unexpectedly. Martin was jovial, kind, and loved by his family, his church, and community. Martin was a character, with a personality bigger than life. He lived well, and Doris would agree, well beyond his means in his later years. He’d been a hard worker all his life. A good provider. But when he died on September 21, 2019, Doris found herself in chaos. The chaos of loss.

Doris, 80, was overwhelmed and exhausted when she reached out to Wings for Widows about a month later. At first her kids tried to help, but no one could make sense of what needed to be done first, as everything seemed to be a priority. Creditors were calling. Collection letters went unopened. There were no pensions, no retirement accounts, and no savings. Martin handled the family’s finances during their marriage, which is often the case, which meant that Doris had little knowledge of when bills were due, who to pay, or even which checkbook to use. She wanted to grieve, but her finances were in crisis. She’d have to grieve later.

Chris Bentley met Doris and several of her family members at their first coaching meeting. And a second, but then Chris began meeting Doris at her home in Brooklyn Park. Every few weeks they would sit at the kitchen table, usually for several hours, and pour through Doris’ finances. Most coaching engagements last a month or so; Chris worked with Doris for more than four months.

Doris’ financial situation was in critical condition, and Chris’ primary concern was keeping Doris in her home. The problem was simple: with the loss of Martin’s social security income there wasn’t enough to cover current expenses. Worse, there was significant debt and no means for paying it down.

The first priority was to determine what were Martin’s debts and what were joint debts or Doris’ debts. Chris contacted all of Martin’s creditors, including the collection agencies, and explained that there was no estate to probate and worked with the Wings for Widow’s attorney to settle these issues. With Doris at his side, they pulled Martin’s credit reports to ensure that all his accounts were reviewed, properly coded as deceased, and closed.

Doris still worked part-time as a school bus monitor, attended church, and continued to run her household, which included caring for her grandson. It was imperative that Doris remain in her home, which was in real question. Doris was two-months behind with her mortgage payment and Chris knew he needed to find a way to bring her current. There was no equity in the home to borrow; in fact, the home wasn’t worth the outstanding mortgage. Worse, it had gone to collections and working with them would be very challenging.

Meanwhile, Doris’ only car was Martin’s old Cadillac Escalade. It was in dire need of servicing. Car payments were past due, as well. Doris needed a replacement, but the first priority was saving the home. Chris’ poured over Doris’ credit reports and worked with her to close inactive accounts, and also to preserve if not enhance her credit score. He would need to take action that helped her credit history in the event Doris would need new housing. This meant declaring bankruptcy wasn’t an option. Chris would have to work with Doris’ creditors.

Martin had one small life insurance policy. Chris had helped Doris file for benefits and the check arrived about this time. Digging through folders at one meeting, Chris discovered an additional small policy, and benefits were applied for. This helped Doris get her mortgage payments current. But for how long? There was still too much debt.

The next priority was to understand Doris’ expenses and, more importantly, which were essential, and which were not. Chris began negotiating with the utility companies, cell phone companies, and other service providers to forgive or reduce past due bills and establish payment plans. One by one, they lowered or eliminated expenses.

Just before Martin died, they had received a home improvement loan to remodel their master bathroom. This loan was severely past due and about to go to collections. Chris tackled this creditor next, working out a payment plan and keeping it from going to collections. At the same time, there was a past-due bill from the IRS, with penalties and interest accruing. They contacted the IRS together and worked out a plan to get that bill paid. In fact, there were so many creditors, Chris kept a notebook to keep track of all the details. No wonder Doris and her family were overwhelmed!

Chris then arranged to bring in a budgeting expert, Maura Albrecht, paid for by Wings for Widows. Maura worked with Doris for the next eight weeks to create a budget and payment schedule so that Doris knew when and to whom to send payments. This was all tied to when various income would hit Doris’ bank. Doris adopted the system and diligently sticks to the schedule Maura created for her.

The pandemic followed, schools shut down, and Doris was out of job. Luckily the school district continued to pay Doris’ small salary. Her grandson, working at Cub and various jobs, also helps with some of Doris’ expenses. Their financial situation is now stable though far from perfect. But most importantly, together, they remain in their home. Home sweet home.

*The names have been changed by request.