Why did George Bell, an ordinary man from Queens, New York, become the subject of an extensive 8000-word New York Times article that was read by more than three million people? He was no one special; he was a man who died from a heart attack. However, he was someone we could all recognize ourselves in. In fact, many of us could be in a similar situation upon death.
Every year, 50,000 people die in New York—some receiving a grand, elaborate funeral with a multitude of mourners, others receiving a solitary, bare-minimum send-off with at most a few strangers and distant relatives in attendance. George Bell belonged to the latter.
He lived alone in an apartment, seldom leaving except to meet his sole friend at a bar in Long Island City. He had no other friends that he spoke to regularly, no close relatives. He ended up dying unnoticed in his apartment, a space filled with the remains of a hoarder, and was not found until a few days later when the stench of his death pervaded into his neighbor’s apartment.
It took the police and the Queens County public administrator several months to confirm his identity and find his next of kin in his disorganized apartment. Eventually, a will was found that dated back to 1982, splitting his estate evenly among three men and a woman. It was learned that Bell had not spoken to these people in decades, save for the woman, his ex-fiancé, who remained in sparse contact with him.
Investigators combed through his apartment and found bank statements, discovering that Bell had a significant amount of assets—a total of $540,000. This amount would be split among the four named in his will, with the contents of his apartment being claimed by a clean-out company. In total, it took 14 months and $55,000 for George Bell’s entire estate to be settled.
We often see celebrities dying and leaving behind large estates. Their family members then have to sort out a messy situation due to the lack of estate planning. We tend to look at these stories from a detached perspective, thinking that these are things that would never happen to us. This is, however, far from the case.
According to U.S. Census projections, the number of people age 85 or over will increase to 14 million by the year 2040. Therefore, there will be more people like George Bell falling through the cracks as a result of a lack of traditional family support and up-to-date estate planning documents. Like George Bell, their decline and isolation could be a source of public humiliation, remembered only for being exposed on the front cover of the New York Times.
If you have no close relatives or friends, or even if you do, it is necessary to take the right steps to ensure that your wishes are carried out. Perhaps you would like your assets to go to a charity, or perhaps you would like to give your possessions to specific family members or friends. In that case, having a trust in place would prevent your loved ones from having to go through the expensive and drawn-out probate process.
Sitting down with an estate planning attorney would be a beneficial first step, as they would be able to help you organize your documents and put mechanisms in place that would protect your estate, as well as appoint someone to carry out decisions for you in case you ever do have a decline like George Bell did.
It’s also important to remember that there are many people like George Bell in the world, becoming more reclusive and losing touch with friends and family as they get older. George Bell died in isolation, but maybe we could all reach out to someone in our lives that may be going down a similar path and offer our company and support. Everyone has their own personal problems, but simply knowing that there is someone out there who cares about them could go a long way.