Now What? Tough financial & other issues partners fail to discuss before one dies

 Sometimes, it happens in a flash. It was a beautiful spring afternoon when Eileen got a call from the police in her community.  "I have bad news," the officer said. "Your husband had a stroke on the golf course. We've taken him to the nearest hospital. Why don't you meet us there?"

Unfortunately, he died a week later.

Eileen and her husband had been married 45 years. He was the chief financial officer and household manager for their family. He invested, managed finances, wrote checks, met with the plumber and electrician, insurance agent and accountant. He negotiated the buying and selling of their cars and homes. All the passwords to get into most of the information was on his computer.

Maybe, your spouse or partner of longstanding has a protracted illness. Plenty of time to plan for end of life, you think. You have no idea what assets you own and where they are kept. You ask your spouse to show you everything, just in case. He shoos you away. "Not now, honey." Message: I'm not going to die (yet) and there is plenty of time to have these discussions." But when your spouse dies, you're in a pickle, a very sour one at probably the lowest point in your life.

Many women find themselves cut short because of a lack of proper planning. Our hope is that this is changing as younger couples seem to do a better job of sharing, though it's still not always the case. But for our older generation, many women haven't been involved.

Here's the typical scenario shared with us in an email but abridged:

A friend's daughter-in-law, who was executor of her parents' estate, was in the midst of an awful family situation after her father died. Here's what our friend wrote about her daughter-in-law's family:

"Her father had cancer for about a year and was reluctant to divulge anything about his finances. All of a sudden his health tanked, and he was put in hospice and on morphine for excruciating pain. My daughter-in-law was scrambling valiantly to get her dad's affairs in order before he died, since he hadn't done it himself. They practically had to force the financial information out of him. He died before that all happened, so she has a real mess and discovered that he didn't have as many assets as expected."

The moral to all this is to plan and have the tough financial and end-of-life discussions while everyone is healthy and can make smart shared decisions.

Many of us share a life with our spouses or partners, but we don't share everything. Some of that is fine such as past loves or unsavory acts, maybe, cheating on a test or a spouse. But too many things that need to be discussed aren't.

Why? Often, it's because the husband or partner doesn't want to cede control or share their ultimate plans-leaving most of his funds to his children from a prior marriage or a certain charity. Whatever the reasons, you're left in the dark.

Margaret's husband's death hit like lightening. At 63, he was the picture of good health including a full head of dark hair. He had been a neighborhood trustee, baseball coach, in the entertainment business, vice president of a family business until retirement and had a new job in the movie advertising business before his death. He had boundless energy and loved walking his dog, mowing the lawn, cleaning the pool and then poof! He died at age 68 of cancer. Margaret was caught short. What happened next is documented in our book, Suddenly Single after 50.

Barbara's father had left very detailed notes about investments to her mother, and though he wrote the checks, her mother had observed and listened, so she stepped in and worked with the advisors he had when she took charge. She was unsure in some cases what to do and not 100-percent confident, but she was smart and determined. She felt it was her responsibility to do a good job. And as she aged, she shared more and more information with Barbara so she would have an idea about family finances To ensure a smooth transition and avoid frantic searches to find passwords to information, consider the following steps: 

  1. Sit down together and discuss what you own and where the funds are invested. Know what you pay in taxes and when. Know who handles investments, if an outsider(s) does.
  2. Learn how to handle money. Some wives have never written a check or paid a bill. One woman we know had never filled her gas tank. Her spouse always did that for her. Speak up and ask about what you don't know. It's not like you have to perform brain surgery.
  3. Know your spouse's social security number and other important facts and have them written down in a safe place.
  4. Get thee to a trust and estates attorney while both of you are healthy. Draft a will or a trust that has a will component. This will avoid having to go through probate court. Probate court means your personal information will go public. This can have disastrous effects such as attracting scammers who may try to steal your identity or set up credit card accounts using your information. It also costs and can be a time suck. Be sure you and your spouse are in agreement on who inherits what, and if you are in a long-term partnership, know the contents of each other's wills, too, so you're not surprised when the will contents are "read."
  5. Make sure you have beneficiaries named on all bank accounts and be sure these have been updated according to bank laws. If not, these too will go through probate court.
  6. Make a list of all credit cards, the numbers and phone numbers of the companies, passwords and security codes.
  7. Jot down Medicare and Medicaid, supplemental Medicare health insurance card numbers and the same for your drug plan. Once someone dies, you will have to contact all government agencies such as Social Security and show the death certificate (get at least a dozen of these because you'll need them and it's less expensive to do so at the beginning). You might also be entitled to your late spouse's Social Security if it's more than yours.
  8. Have a copy of any insurance from long-term care to life insurance with a long-term care rider, if there is one.
  9. Put together a list of names, phone numbers and emails of the other professionals your spouse used such as attorneys, accountants, bank officers, real estate agents, stockbrokers, his human resource manager at work in case you have to deal with his company insurance and more.
  10. If you are doing taxes for the first time and not sure what you have and where, contact your accountant, if you use one, or dig up a copy of your tax return. In fact, don't hesitate to turn to experts to help you through the morass of paperwork and other issues. The process takes time, so be prepared.
  11. Don't be blindsided by bills after a spouse's death. If there is debt, hospital bills, car payments, insurance or anything else for which your spouse was still paying, you are required to pay them. Just because the person is dead doesn't mean you don't still owe.
  12. Keep all information on a thumb drive or make a list in Word and keep it in a manilla file folder but not on your computer. Some like to keep a second copy in a bank safe or at their attorney's office.
  13. Know end of life decisions way in advance from do not resuscitate to burial place, service, who will officiate, give eulogies and where contributions in memory will be made if that matters.
  14. And because you want to leave a good legacy for your heirs, be they your children or others, do the same for them. Tidy up your finances, will, healthcare proxy and paperwork so whomever you will confide in, has the information in advance, too.

Once your spouse or partner dies that doesn't necessarily mean it's the end of mail sent to him, phone calls and requests to connect on social media. You can call, opt out, write a letter or email to cut these off. But some will still continue, even after a few years. Be prepared.

As frustrating and time consuming as this process might be, it helps to ease the angst when your loved one dies. At least, you can then concentrate on grieving, which is a long-term process in most cases, and trying to move forward rather than searching for papers, investments and spending time in unpleasant phone calls and in-person meetings.

1 comment

  • Savitri Jain

    Very true and helpful

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