Miriam Chatinover didn’t foresee what she was taking on when she said yes to a dying neighbor’s request to be executor of what would turn out to be a $2 million estate intended to benefit Israeli children in need.
The neighbor, Marilyn Ratner, lived with her husband, Larry, in a house next to Chatinover’s in a quiet cul-de-sac in the Village of Thomaston. The women’s relationship was casual.
“During the summer I loved to garden. Marilyn would come over, and she would admire what I was doing, puttering around,” Chatinover recalled.
Circumstances would draw them closer long before Chatinover, 88 — who had taught elementary school and retired from Great Neck South Middle School in 1988 — learned the value of Ratner’s estate and how she wanted it spent.
“She always had aches and pains,” Chatinover said. “She’d lost a child — a boy — when he was 5, her only child. She was very dependent on her husband When he got sick, She would call me saying ‘Larry fell out of bed.’ I would go over and help her get him back in bed,” Chatinover said.
When her husband died nine years ago, Ratner was alone. “She had distant relatives who she was not in contact with,” Chatinover said. “She would call me up. ‘Will you take me to this doctor?’ Wherever she had to go she would ask me, ‘Can you take me here? Can you take me there?’”
Then Ratner was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and told she had six to eight months to live. “She refused chemotherapy to lengthen her life,” said Chatinover, who helped Ratner put her affairs in order, including funeral and burial arrangements.
That was in September 2016, the same time she asked Chatinover to be her executor.
“I said OK. What did I know?” Chatinover explained. “She didn’t say anything about the money at the time. She told me she wanted whatever was in her estate to go to children in need in Israel and immigrants. I had no idea what I was getting into.” She would find out when she accompanied Ratner to a lawyer to draw up her will.
“When the lawyer asked her about the estate, you figure a few thousand dollars,” Chatinover said describing her thinking at the time. “I was sitting and almost fell off the chair. I was speechless. I was just amazed. She didn’t behave like a woman who had a million dollars. She lived very simply.”
Ratner died within a month. She was 76. “After she had done everything she had to do she just gave up,” Chatinover said. “The pancreatic cancer had spread to her liver. Doctors said they couldn’t operate.”
There were seven people at Ratner’s funeral, including Chatinover and her husband, Marvin.
“Then it hit me that I had this much money to spend,” Chatinover said, “but I also had to sell her house and the car.”
Chatinover researched organizations to fund with help from Marvin, 92, a former journalist and Navy veteran who has appeared in Woody Allen films; her sons, Steven, 64, a rabbi who teaches at a school in Connecticut, and Jonathan, 58, owner of a computer-software company who lives in Martha’s Vineyard; and her daughter, Abbe Miller, 62, an art therapist at Albertus Magnus College in Hamden, Connecticut, among others.
“I also got a lot of recommendations from my neighbors, my optometrist; women in my organizations,” Chatinover said, referring to the many she’s active in, including the Lakeville Section of the National Council of Jewish Women, Retired Teachers of Great Neck, the board of the Great Neck Senior Center, the Sisterhood of Temple Emanuel (her own congregation) and the Great Neck-Manhasset Community Child Care Partnership.
Finding the need
Twenty organizations in Israel that assist children up to age 17 were chosen to receive funding. All have nonprofit affiliates in the United States.
Chatinover made two 10-day trips to Israel visiting programs at all the sites. The first trip was in December 2017; the second was last October. Friends in Israel planned her itinerary, and her daughters-in-law, Leah Chatinover, an attorney, and Elizabeth Chatinover, an accountant, accompanied her. Miriam Chatinover said she was moved by what she saw.
“I was saddened because there were so many children in need,” she said. “I went to sites where all the children were in wheelchairs.”
In those two trips, Chatinover facilitated donations ranging from $20,000 to $200,000, including several checks for $100,000.
Chatinover developed criteria for the donations: “It had to be for a specific purpose,” she said. “One hospital needed special beds for children; another facility needed an art therapist and a speech therapist; one had to have special buses to take children in wheelchairs to a pool.”
Ratner’s donations paid for free day care for working parents and a year’s supply of books for children who formerly got one book per month. “The looks on those children’s faces, it was priceless!” Chatinover said.
At a facility for teenagers removed from abusive homes, the funds modernized two classrooms. “The children were so impressed that someone who didn’t know them was willing to donate money to help them,” Chatinover said.
Reaping the joy
Some street children in Jerusalem faced eviction from a space rented by a couple for them to have a place to sleep, take a shower, have a warm meal and play music. The place was being sold. The children were “absolutely ecstatic,” Chatinover said, when one donation of $200,000 went to pay for a few months’ rent and a down payment to buy the place. “They didn’t know how they would get the money so fast,” she said. It was the final check from the estate.
Other programs that benefited included Catching the Wave, which gives training in surfing and surfboard repair as an alternative to jail for youths who also learn to use three defibrillators that were paid for with $60,000 from Ratner’s estate; and camping trips on Passover, Sukkot and Purim — Jewish holidays — for families of paratroopers killed in Israeli conflicts; Kids for Peace, an interfaith youth organization in Jerusalem, received support to help 50 youngsters learn leadership skills in Washington, D.C.
The Women’s International Zionist Organization, which has offices in Manhattan and runs book-distribution programs at 180 day-care centers in Israel that Chatinover supports, is another beneficiary of Ratner’s estate. Susan Henkin, executive director, said of Chatinover, “She knew what was important to Mrs. Ratner and found places [she] would have wanted to see her money go to. She was careful and so thoughtful about choosing the organizations she funded.”
'A big surprise'
Miriam Westheimer, director of Hippy International, which helps low-income parents in Israel prepare their children for preschool, said, “It was a big surprise” when Chatinover called saying she wanted to contribute $50,000 from Ratner to the program, which has its headquarters at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
“We were absolutely surprised and thrilled,” Westheimer said. “We used it to improve the program in Israel and adapt it for other countries, like Liberia.”
Chatinover’s visits to programs were documented by her friend, Sharyn Schneider, 75, of Great Neck. She took photographs on the second trip, which she said was “my 20th trip to Israel but one that will stand out … because of the unusual and moving events.”
Schneider said Chatinover, a grandmother of seven, studied every project she directed money to. “It was a huge undertaking with lots of paperwork and she did it — never stopping until it was done. … We ran around from breakfast till after dinner … to see how the money was being used.
“She never got tired, never needed a nap, never wanted to eliminate any stops, and we went to all parts of the country,” Schneider said. “At age 88 she was making miracles happen. I was very happy to be part of this journey of giving. I have seen patience and love given countless times to sick and needy children … and it motivates me to do more and give more in my life.”
Chatinover said that charitable giving had been a habit for Ratner. Going over Ratner’s books, Chatinover said she found her former neighbor usually donated $5 monthly to various groups, including to help immigrant Falashas — Ethiopian Jews who immigrated to Israel and are “struggling to survive.”
During her trips, Chatinover was touched by the response from, those who received Ratner’s donations. She recalled how a camp program administrator, thanking her for what she thought was a $2,000 donation, “burst into tears” when she learned it was $20,000. “I kept saying to myself, why couldn’t Marilyn have done this in her lifetime and get this great pleasure of seeing the reaction. For me it was so heartwarming, the appreciation they showed.”
When the $2 million ran out in November, Chatinover said she declared, “It’s all gone. Thank goodness.”
She said she’s confident she carried out Ratner’s wishes.
“I keep thinking, I hope Marilyn is pleased with what I’m doing,” she said. “She told me what she wanted, and I did what she wanted to have done with her money. I hope to go to Israel one more time to see what all that money has accomplished.”
Her one lingering wish: That it had been $3 million, she said, “because people still ask me.”
What executors should know
As Miriam Chatinover discovered, serving as executor of an estate can be a challenging undertaking, “a big — and time-consuming — task,” according to a report in the Nov. 16, 2018, issue of U.S. News & World Report.
“Prepare for plenty of paperwork,” says Geoff Williams, who writes on financial matters for the magazine. “ … You carry the burden of a variety of duties and legal responsibilities. While you may feel privileged to be trusted to settle the affairs and fulfill the wishes of the deceased, to steer clear of common headaches and minimize hurdles it’s crucial to stay prepared and organized.”
Estate and trust attorneys on Long Island agree.
“An executor is generally responsible for marshaling the assets of the estate and addressing any and all liabilities that may exist,” attorney Thomas Re of Sag Harbor said. “He or she is charged with the responsibility to execute the will and desire of the deceased as indicated in the last will and testaments,” among other duties.
Neil Fang, an attorney with Schwartz, Fang & Keating in Woodbury, noted, “The executor is a role that carries with it great responsibility and potential for liability. The executor is one who safeguards the assets of the estate, paying the expenses and liabilities -- including filing an estate tax return -- and ensures the distribution of those assets in accordance with the terms and directions of the testator — the deceased person.”
Bruce Rothenberg, an estate planner with law offices in Bohemia, said carrying out the role of executor of an estate “is a fairly complex proceeding. It involves locating and notifying next of kin and dealing with possible challenges to the deceased’s will.”
“It’s a bit intimidating,” said Jennifer Cona, a partner in the law firm of Genser Cona Elder Law, based in Melville. “You’re always going to need an attorney.”