Protect Estate Planning

When Death Happens: Planning for the Unexpected

Melanie Brooks  |  May 31, 2019

Financial decisions made now can make all the difference should tragedy strike.

Everyone was shocked when Jerry committed suicide. No one expected it, least of all his wife — and my friend — Jamie Ballinger.

“Worrying about food and shelter came first before dealing with my psychological well-being,” Jamie says. Before she could even process the tragedy, she had to tend to the immediate emotional needs of her 7-year-old son and plan a funeral. Then when family arrived, Jamie had to make sure sheets were washed and everyone was fed. Only once her house was finally empty of guests, was she able to start sorting through the mess.  

And only then did she realize just how many unanswered questions she had — many of them money-related.  For example, was there life insurance? Unfortunately and surprisingly, there was not. Where were the passwords for social media and other accounts?  Not, frustratingly, in a single place. It would be months before Jamie had answers to her questions, and some problems (like gaining access to his Twitter account) may never be solved.

As awful as Jamie’s situation is, it isn’t unique. Many of us don’t enjoy talking about dying — I know I don’t.  Still, I used Jamie’s tragedy to spur me into action. Perhaps it will do the same for you.

Talk About The Hard Things

“There’s no reason Jerry and I didn’t talk about these things,” says Jamie.  “We just didn’t.” It may be hard to get started, but do your best not to let that happen to you.  “The first conversation will be the hardest,” acknowledges New York-based psychotherapist Matt Lundquist, LCSW, MSEd.  He suggests creating a culture in your relationship with your partner where you agree to talk about the hard things. No matter what.  “There are certain sets of things that adults who want to have healthy relationships need to be able to talk about,” Lundquist says. “Sex, death, and money are the [top] three.”  

Get Organized

We all have important documents stashed all over our house. The amount of account logins and passwords we use can be staggering.  One resource that can help is a workbook called “I’m Dead, Now What?” which asks you to answer a series of essential questions that would be invaluable if the worst happened.  For example: Provide the contact information for the friends you’d like notified upon your death. Where do you keep your passports? Marriage certificate? Insurance cards? What are my usernames and passwords for my social media sites and website?   

Heads up: It’s tedious, but worth it. “Once it’s done, it’s so much easier to maintain,” says Lena Wyand, CFP, partner at Charter Oak Capital Management. “You owe it to anyone you might leave behind.”

Get Life Insurance

Had Jerry had life insurance, dealing with his sudden death could have been so much easier for Jamie.  When Jerry died, Jamie was a full-time PhD student. Her meager monthly stipend just about covered her mortgage. “If my in-laws hadn’t helped me out, I would have starved,” she says.

“The first thing I tell my clients is to buy life insurance, especially if they have children,” Wyand says. Don’t think that because you are a stay at home mom or dad and you’re not bringing home the bacon that you don’t need life insurance. It affords your spouse the time to leave work and grieve if they so choose. These days, getting life insurance is easy, and, nine times out of 10, term life (which is much less expensive than permanent insurance) is the way to go, Wyand says. Do you want to be insured until your child graduates from college? Your retirement? The next 30 years? You choose. Play around with some of the many life insurance calculators online or talk to your financial advisor about your goals.   

If you have life insurance through work, make sure it’s enough. A lot of times, these policies are for immediate needs, like paying for a funeral. “Supplemental life insurance is the one that tells your partner that you love them,” Jamie says. “Mine is 10 times my salary. It gives me piece of mind for my son.”

Estate Documents

Like many people Jamie didn’t have all of her important documents in one place. That changed as soon as Jerry died.  Today she has what she calls “The Red Folder.” It is, quite literally, a red folder where the most important information is kept. Her close friends know where to find it in her house should something happen to her. The contents include social security cards; birth, marriage, and death certificates; immunization records; and insurance policies. Things she wishes she had readily available when she needed them most.

Make sure you and your spouse know where you keep all of your important documents. If you don’t have a will, get one. If you have one, make sure you update it every three years. You should also have durable powers of attorney for healthcare (so that someone else can make health related decisions for you if you’re unable) and finances (so that someone else can manage your money if you can’t do it yourself.). You’ll also want to make sure you’ve named beneficiaries for your retirement accounts.  

Digital Assets

Trying to delete social media accounts for someone who has passed can be incredibly frustrating—even impossible. Jamie ran into so many roadblocks trying to get rid of Jerry’s Twitter account that she eventually gave up.   (Note: There is a way to mark your facebook account to be permanently deleted through your settings after you die…but frustratingly, you have to choose to do that while you are still living.) Jamie also didn’t know any of Jerry’s logins or passwords, and her name wasn’t on a lot of the household utility accounts. “When you have to call your Internet provider to change the billing or whatever, and you’re forced to explain what happened to your husband and provide a death certificate, the grief is really real,” Jamies says. “It’s a burden.”

Wyand suggests downloading an app (like LastPass or 1Password) that stores the multitude of passwords you have accumulated (bank accounts, Netflix, social media, wifi, smartphone, email…). All you need is one master password to access your list. And if you can put both of your names on an account, do it. That way you won’t need to provide a death certificate for all of those household utilities like cable, internet, sewer, etc.  

Bank Accounts

It’s not uncommon for couples to have separate bank accounts. However, Wyand suggests having one joint account for paying all of the monthly bills. Both of you should know how to handle the finances; don’t leave it up to just one person. Grieving a death is hard enough without freaking out about missing the monthly mortgage payment. You need to know the account numbers and passwords to all of your checking, saving, and credit card accounts…even ones you hold separately.

Jamie was the one who managed the family finances, but her name wasn’t listed as a beneficiary on a number of Jerry’s small retirement accounts from old jobs. “They’re jobs he didn’t have for very long, but I still get mail about them, five years later,” she says. “It’s a whole process to deal with them.”

Bottom line: The more openly you can communicate and the more you can plan now, the easier life will be for the loved ones you leave behind.

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