Jake and Kelly (not their real names) were very dear friends of ours. Well, Kelly is still, but her husband just recently passed away. Because he was healthy and active, it came as a complete shock to us all — especially to Kelly.
A familiar division of labor had developed in their 40 years of marriage. Jake was the one who took care of everything. He naturally just assumed the role of handyman, car mechanic, and accountant. If it broke, he fixed it; if it needed gas, he filled it; and if it needed to be paid, he made sure the finances would accommodate it.
Circumstances reinforce habits
They both worked since becoming empty nesters, but a few years ago Jake became one of those statistics we talk about a lot in the comments — he became unemployed and, when the benefits ran out, he ended up dropping off the official unemployment statistics.
Maybe Janet Yellen considers it happy news when this occurs (as in finally we're seeing the employment situation improve), but the reality was that he eventually gave up looking. (There is only so much rejection any human can endure, after all.)
Fortunately for them, Kelly is a Registered Nurse (RN) and made good money, so they didn't suffer any undue hardship. But what that meant for them, however, was that Jake assumed even more of the household duties, such as, shopping, cooking, and so forth. It was a great arrangement, and nobody complained.
Jake's passing, though, changed all that. During the first week or so she didn't have time to notice. Family and friends flew in from all around for the memorial service, and her main focus was to keep everyone fed and housed. But as soon as everyone left, reality set in when their car stopped running.
They only needed one car, so that's what they had. My wife was there to help drive her from one place to the next as she went about notifying various entities. It gave us an interesting insight into the rigamarole those left behind experience when we move on to a more peaceful place to spend eternity, but it brought home to Kelly the sobering realization that she is alone now and she has to get reacquainted with today's necessary life skills.
Overwhelming at first
She used to have a cell phone, which she never answered because Jake took care of everything. So if we wanted to invite them for dinner, Jake was the only one who would take the call and respond. Well, she no longer has that luxury, so she decided to get a new cell phone. She caved to peer pressure and got an iPhone like her friends, and she's still trying to learn how to use it. But that's just the background.
She went to the bank to find out what accounts Jake and/or she had, because she simply had no idea.
On one hand, it was amusing to see ignorance of such a level — but to her it was mostly terrifying. Imagine: The meeting starts with something like “My husband passed away and …”
Emotionally, that's draining enough, but then it's even worse when the answer from the bank is something like, “Well, your husband had this or that account; but until the probate is resolved, you can't have it.”
Fortunately, they had few accounts and they were all joint, so she dodged that bullet.
One thing leads to the next
Life insurance is always a drag because it is just about making payments, and payments are never fun. Now, however, she had to file a claim. That's when she ran into the next problem: She didn't know the combination to the safe. Jake was smart in that he kept a neat list of all the accounts and passwords. Except the password for the safe had obviously changed somewhere along the way.
It was only after the locksmith took care of that problem when she discovered that Jake had a policy that took care of the second mortgage but not the first. One more thing to take care which started with the words “My husband passed away …”
Fortunately, they had a joint email account (for no reason other than that she didn't do email). Now, in addition to processing the grief, she has had to learn what email is, texting, Facebook, and all that kind of stuff. She waited to buy a new car until she received the settlement on the life insurance policy. She knows that it's more expensive; but to her, the extra money buys peace of mind regarding car maintenance.
Just one example
A young couple in our church, married for two years with a baby less than a year old got hit with the husband dying from cancer. Because their relationship was still (relatively) young, the magnitude of those adjustments were less for the wife. (Of course, becoming a single parent at such an early age more than makes up for that.)
When yet another friend passed away barely two weeks after Jake, I was reminded again how nothing is permanent. Relationships end, whether because of death or because of divorce or separation or for other reasons.
Plans for the active spouse/passive spouse
By now, you may have tons of advice for what Kelly and/or Jake should have done and what she should do now. But that is not the point of this post. The point is that:
For those who are in a married or similar relationship, it is normal for one spouse to be the active one on some things and the passive one on others. The issue of whether each party should manage their finances separately or jointly has been debated elsewhere to a great extent, and the conclusion one can make from all those discussions is that it's different strokes for different folks.
However, there does seem to be a basic list of must-dos, especially in the case of the passive spouse:
1. Have a will. It doesn't matter how far-off your demise may seem, it is just plain wisdom to put a will together. It doesn't need to be fancy — you can compile a Word document from public templates in half an hour and print it (which is what I did). It's a good idea to print two copies and give one to a close friend. (Ironically, when Kelly's locksmith got their safe open, there was only one will in the safe — ours, the second copy of which I happened to give to Jake in case we had a house fire and I didn't make it.)
2. Make a list. My late father had a folder which he called (in grim humor) “The Death File.” It contained sheets of paper with the numbers of all the insurance policies, along with the phone numbers of the agents to call. It listed the few passwords they used online, as well as numbers (phone and account) for everything like city services, phone service, and stuff like that. (He even had a sheet with pruning instructions for the roses!)
3. Drill. Once a year, the day after his birthday, my dad had my mom go through the death file to remind herself what was there and why. My dad had cancer, so she was motivated not to treat it lightly. When he did finally pass away, she was able to pick up the reins he'd held for more than 40 years and continue seamlessly. (Not stresslessly, but at least seamlessly.)
4. Set up a few separate accounts. It can help get you through the traumatic first few weeks if you have a separate account (like a savings account) in your name with a thousand dollars or so in it. It covers immediate, unforeseen expenses in the event joint accounts get frozen for some reason. When my dad passed away, my mother told me countless times how much that one item helped her get through the red tape.
5. Lighten up. Because my dad had warning, he spent a lot of time getting rid of stuff he knew my mom would never use. Kelly was not so lucky. She sits with a garage full of tools she will have to dispose of in the coming weeks. Jake was a bit like Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor in his affinity for tools, and there are more than a few duplicates to make the problem bigger. Since most of us don't know when separation may strike, it is a good idea to have an annual garage sale just to minimize the clutter.
Finding comfort in the inevitable
The main thing, really, is to accept that death is inevitable, at any age. None of us wants to dwell on the fact that every single relationship ends sooner or later; however, it will. Far better to set a date to plan for it. Buy a pint of ice cream for the occasion if that helps, but do it. My dad's idea of the day after his birthday is a good starting point, I think. If you have a sense of humor, it takes the sting out of it and helps ensure that it doesn't get pushed aside.
The bottom line is that separation is a traumatic event. The financial side of it can add to the trauma or be a comfort. The second option is better, but it requires a little work and attention now.
Are you an active spouse or passive spouse? How would you change your level of involvement in your family finances? What would you add to the list?
William Cowie spent 30 years in senior management (CFO/CEO) before retiring. He has a bachelor's, a master's, and a partial doctorate in management and strategy. Author of the book “The Four Seasons of the Economy,” William also assists medium-sized businesses in the use of the Four Season Strategy to help them capitalize on economic cycles. He runs two blogs: Bite the Bullet Investing (investing) and Drop Dead Money (the economy) and writes for several other blogs in addition.