5 ways to reduce the pain of the inevitable


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.

Circumstances change

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?

More about...Insurance, Planning

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JoeM
JoeM
5 years ago

Was the Janet Yellen comment really necessary? Unemployment reporting is what it is and it hasn’t changed under her watch. Get over it.

Michael
Michael
5 years ago

The Wall Street Journal had a pretty comprehensive list a few years back called “The 25 Documents You Need Before You Die” which covered the 25 docs that adults should have. The article itself isn’t anything new or earth shattering but the whole list is a helpful reminder of docs we should have to make our loved ones’ lives easier: http://www.wsj.com/news/interactive/DOC110702

Jessie
Jessie
5 years ago
Reply to  Michael

Thank you for the link!

Artistic4
Artistic4
5 years ago

This is a sobering reality check and very important for single folks as well! Keeping one person in the loop about your important documents and where -to -find -what is respectful to those you’ll leave behind and decreases their burdens. Nobody likes to think about it, however taking care of it on a rainy afternoon can create peace of mind for yourself.

Could be a good idea to include quirky home instructions. And really, if you want something specific done after you kick off, you must write it down!

Ema
Ema
5 years ago

“Get your shit together,” is a site that was created by a woman who lost her husband unexpectedly when young. It also has lots of checklists and handouts to make this process easier.

http://getyourshittogether.org/

Old Guy
Old Guy
5 years ago

I am the active spouse. I have a single file that lists every account, including balances, usernames and passwords. As my father passed last month, I can add to that list the pre-paid funeral. Not only are the costs significantly lower when you pre-pay, it also takes a lot of the stress off because you already know which funeral home to call and a thousand other things which were decided in advance. I had only a handful of decisions to make instead of the avalanche that would have hit me otherwise. I always tell my family that the question is… Read more »

Kelly
Kelly
5 years ago

We have been married 11 years. Both of us are actively involved in our finances, but for different pieces. In general, he takes care of the short-term bills (electric, cable, etc) and I take care of the longer-term items (retirement accounts, insurance, etc). If something happened to him, I think I could pick up the financial pieces fairly easily. He would have more difficulty, though, because of the accounts that I handle. I also keep a list of all of the accounts and passwords. Some of the accounts he might not think of would be the Health Savings Accounts and… Read more »

Tina in NJ
Tina in NJ
5 years ago
Reply to  Kelly

Get the will done. (We were required to as part of adopting our daughter.) Also, please make sure you have plenty of insurance.

Kelly
Kelly
5 years ago
Reply to  Tina in NJ

We’ve got the insurance part taken care of, just not the will.

Sam
Sam
5 years ago

I keep the finances is our household. My husband is somewhat aware that I have accounts that he doesn’t have access to, accounts where we keep our emergency fund, etc. I have a list of all our accounts, the bank, the account number, and the password. I keep the list in my personal file at work (which is encrypted and secure since its my work system, only I can see it, etc.) and I print out a copy about once a year and the hard copy is kept at work (in our safe there is a note that tells Mr.… Read more »

Kelly
Kelly
5 years ago
Reply to  Sam

I thought you couldn’t have a minor as a beneficiary to life insurance policies. Anyone know?

HKR
HKR
5 years ago
Reply to  Kelly

You technically can have a minor as a beneficiary, but you run the risk of the funds getting tied up in regulations regarding guardianship until the minor becomes of age, and it can take years to sort it out. It would be a good idea to consult a professional before assigning a minor as beneficiary to avoid this issue. I also wonder about the fact that the list, both electronic and hard copy, are kept at the workplace. In my company handbook, it’s clearly stated that anything kept on company servers or in company files belongs to the company, and… Read more »

Helen
Helen
5 years ago

Thanks for a helpful article on an important, too-seldom discussed topic. I have to respectfully but emphatically disagree with one point, however: “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).” Bad, bad idea! Your will is far too important a legal document to be cobbled together DIY-fashion. There are many pitfalls that can arise, and the worst thing is that they… Read more »

Honey Smith
Honey Smith
5 years ago
Reply to  Helen

Additionally, my husband (who is an attorney though he is not an estate planner) says wills are a bad idea for most people – he recommends trusts instead.

KW
KW
5 years ago
Reply to  Honey Smith

Whether you should have a will or a trust very much depends on the state in which you reside. We just had our wills done in the past year, and live in the state of Washington. For various reasons that our lawyer went over with us, he guided us toward wills rather than a trust. However, he noted that if we lived in California, we would have ABSOLUTELY set up a trust for our assets. Professional advice is important here.

Jen from Boston
Jen from Boston
5 years ago
Reply to  Helen

I think a homemade will is better than nothing as it can give some sort of indication of where you want things to go. Also, if you’re a young adult without much stuff it could be OK.

Helen
Helen
5 years ago

A homemade will, if it turn out to be invalid, isn’t actually better than no will at all. In that case, the distribution of assets is determined by the intestacy laws of that jurisdiction. The fact that the survivors would have an idea of what the deceased actually wanted wouldn’t make the slightest difference to the distribution, and in fact may cause more upset and hard feeling to see the distribution go another way.

Paul
Paul
5 years ago
Reply to  Helen

Are you saying it is better not to have a will than to use a template without a lawyer? I do not have a will right now, mainly because I am young and do not have any children, and do not have that much money. But, I was told by my parents that I need to make a will to make things simpler for them and my wife if I die. So, I can probably go ahead and make a will, have it notarized and get it done within the next week or so (and have my wife do it… Read more »

Helen
Helen
5 years ago
Reply to  Paul

It’s your decision, of course. My comment was simply intended to draw to readers’ attention that there are very significant risks that DIY wills, including those made from will kits or templates,will turn out to be flawed and therefore invalid legally. This can create great difficulties for the survivors. It’s useful for people to research the intestacy laws in their location so they know how their estate would be distributed if they died without a valid will. Some folks may be content with that. Of course, a will is only one of the important legal documents everybody should have. The… Read more »

Jess
Jess
5 years ago
Reply to  Paul

I just wanted to throw in my support for Helen’s comments about wills. I am an estate planning attorney in NY (and the laws vary by state), and I see a lot of people try to do wills themselves that end up being completely invalid. Many people think that the will just has to be notarized and in many cases that is not sufficient. For example, in NY, a will needs to have two witnesses and unless you have them sign an affidavit at the time of signing (something an attorney would always do), the witnesses will likely need to… Read more »

barb
barb
5 years ago

Totally LOVE this post. My only complaint is ….why wasn t this around 14 yrs ago when my husband had his stroke!?

Tina in NJ
Tina in NJ
5 years ago

When my husband’s first wife died, he had no idea which online account corresponded to which bank account. Our joint finances are in slightly better shape, but it would still be a shlog for me. We’ve dealt with parental deaths and I’m dreading my mom’s passing. She let a lot of things slip when dad was sick (13 years ago!) and still hasn’t caught up! I lived on my own before marriage and have a strong support system, so I know I’d be okay. Hubby already dealt with this situation, with a 1-year-old child. But it wouldn’t hurt to update… Read more »

akoilady
akoilady
5 years ago

I was NOT the active one, and it was a divorce, not a death. I am still amazed at how long it took for me to gather the reins up and effectively handle my finances. Oh, I could pay a bill. But the slew of bills that descended upon me and being on time with them was another thing. I constantly beat myself up for not being better at it, especially having my degree of education. But I learned, and I also learned who to ask for help. One thing I did do and I did it almost immediately: I… Read more »

Amy H.
Amy H.
5 years ago
Reply to  akoilady

In the event of divorce, also make sure that you change all beneficiary designations (on retirement accounts/life insurance/brokerage accounts/bank accounts) that name your ex-spouse as the beneficiary.

Nick Langley
Nick Langley
5 years ago

Reminds me of a great quote from Arnold Patent in Money… “We don’t create abundance. Abundance is a,ways present. We create limitations.”

Thanks for the note.

Mary Beth Green
Mary Beth Green
5 years ago

This is a tough topic but a welcome one for me. Thank you for bringing this to our attention. I agree with the above comment about the will. We had a basic one done when our daughter was a baby 30 years ago. I haven’t updated it but should get that done.

Carla
Carla
5 years ago

I honestly never though seriously about making a will. No kids, no assets. I wonder if its still necessary in our case…

Jen from Boston
Jen from Boston
5 years ago
Reply to  Carla

I would look into what happens to your money if you die intestate. Odds are it will go to your parents assuming you are not married. If you’d rather it go to someone, or one parent over another if they’re divorced, then you should do a will.

Carla
Carla
5 years ago

Married, so it will go to the surviving spouse – at least that my understanding of it.

Amy H.
Amy H.
5 years ago
Reply to  Carla

Not true in all states. Here in California, which is a community property state, if you die without a will, but married (without kids), your community property and half of your separate property will go to your surviving spouse. The other half of your separate property will go to your parents, or surviving parent, or if neither is living, your siblings, and on down the line.

It’s worth finding out what the law is in your state to make sure it matches what you want.

Carla
Carla
5 years ago
Reply to  Carla

Thanks for the heads up, Amy H. I will definitely look into this. Husband has no living family but I’m sure the state could dig up some distant 4th cousin if they really needed to. 🙂

Another Beth
Another Beth
5 years ago

I love this advice. I hope I don’t need to use it for a long, long time, though!

Some of the best advice I’ve ever received is for couples to switch roles. If you’re the one who pays the bills every month, let your better half take over for a while. They can see which bills need to be paid and how (electronic? What’s the password for the account? Is it by check? Where’s the checkbook? And so on). It can also open the door to discussions – “We’re spending HOW MUCH on cable?!?”

Alice
Alice
5 years ago

Before my son in law passed away he set up a trust for my daughter and their son. My daughter is the trustee and should something happen to her, my son in law made me the secondary trustee to raise their son who is autistic and has many health problems including scoliosis and will need at least one more back surgery in the future. The smartest move he made was to gift everything to his wife, my daughter including all properties, vehicles and bank accounts. He has older children from a previous marriage and made separate provisions for each of… Read more »

KW
KW
5 years ago

When we had our wills done (we don’t have kids, but do have a business, which makes things more complicated), we opened a safe deposit box at our local credit union jointly along with my sister and her husband and my parents. All of us have our wills and advanced directives papers in that box, so when something eventually happens to any of us, someone can go get the original signed copies of the documents. We’re in Washington state, and apparently in our state at least, you need the originals. I have a list of accounts at home and hubby… Read more »

first step
first step
5 years ago
Reply to  KW

Please check the rules regarding safe deposit boxes in your state. In some cases, box access is frozen upon death of one of the owners, and then the papers needed to take care of business would be unavailable. I would suggest giving up the safe deposit box and getting separate fireboxes, one for the wills and another for the documents you need to access more frequently to keep them safe and easily accessible.

Beth
Beth
5 years ago

Really good post and good comments! Such an important topic. One thing to remember: when you die, accounts that are in your name only are immediately frozen. Please please please consider having joint accounts if your spouse relies on the assets. Some people I know learned this the hard way — most of the retirement portfolio was in the dad’s name and it was a difficult few months for the mom because of probate and the time it took for the life insurance policy to come in. Don’t leave your spouse worried about money running out at one of the… Read more »

Genavieve
Genavieve
5 years ago

We came into a significant sum of money last year, and since we put most of it away for retirement, we ended up needing to create a Revocable Living Trust. Our attorney was terrific. We set up Advanced Health Directives, Powers of Attorney, and the trust. It wasn’t cheap, but I lost my father nearly twenty years ago, and the will he left us with was, at best, pretty poor. I vowed that DH and I wouldn’t do that to each other or to our kids. One thing that hasn’t been mentioned is to make sure that beneficiaries are up… Read more »

Nick @ Millionaires Giving Money
Nick @ Millionaires Giving Money
5 years ago

A very sobering story. I must confess I’m the active person in our relationship taking care of most things. This post has definitely inspired me to actively promote independence so should the unfortunate happen life still goes on.

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