My husband Gil and I thought we’d done everything right when it comes to end-of-life planning. We had up-to-date wills, powers of attorney, and advance directives for health care. But after he died last year, I discovered a lot we got right — and a lot we got wrong.
One of our biggest mistakes: “our” brokerage account was owned solely by Gil with me as the beneficiary. He had also opened “our” savings account in his name only. As a result, I had limited access to funds during probate and had to borrow money from my father. At 58, that’s humbling.
Gil did all the online bill paying, which was fine with me. I was happy to abdicate that responsibility. He had dutifully recorded passwords and security codes on each side of a yellow legal-size piece of paper next to his laptop. But I couldn’t read his handwriting. Passwords are the keys to the kingdom. After he died, I was locked out of our digital home — an outcome I helped create.
New research from Kathleen Rehl, author of “Moving Forward on Your Own: A Financial Guidebook for Widows,” asks survey participants: what do you wish you had known or done while you were still married? Among their answers: “I wish my husband had made me practice handling the Quicken account for a month.” “I wish he had introduced me to his financial advisor while he was alive.” “I wish we had talked about where the investments were and why they were invested that way.” “I wish he had told me what his passwords were, they were all in his head.” “I wish we’d kept at least one checking account in both our names. All the household bills were tied to his bank account and credit card. It took months to sort things out.”
It has taken me the better part of a year to sort out my financial life — a journey that can be challenging in the fog of grief. Seventy percent of married women will lose their husbands, according to Rehl, and 80% of women will die single. I am a financial writer, not a financial advisor. In past weeks, I’ve reached out to industry experts to get their best advice on how women (and men) can prepare for the loss of a spouse and better navigate the tricky terrain after a death occurs. Please read it and share it.
1. Carve out time to discuss your financials and end-of-life wishes. Rehl suggests couples spend one hour a week, over a glass of wine or a cup of tea, to talk about such things as wills, beneficiary designations, why things are invested the way they are, legacy issues, and health care directives. She calls it “active loving.”
2. Create a repository for passwords and other need-to-know information. Whether you and your spouse record everything in a three-ring binder or on a thumb drive, just do it and keep it in a secure place. The document should include account numbers, information for key contacts, online passwords, security codes and PIN numbers along with the location of items such as birth and marriage certificates, divorce papers, vehicle titles, mortgage documents, life insurance policies, retirement plans and stock certificates. Prepare an inventory of what’s stored in any safe deposit box and identify where the keys are kept. Update passwords, security codes and PINs on an ongoing basis.
3. Get to know your financial advisor. Industry research indicates 70% of widows fire their financial advisor — in large measure because they never bothered to develop a relationship.
As Kelly A. Shikany, a certified financial planner with Lakeside Wealth Management in Chesterton, Indiana, affiliated with First Allied Securities, notes: “I can’t tell you how many times I have a meeting scheduled and the wife decides she’s getting her nails done. There’s an element of trust with the spouse: ‘Oh, he’ll fill me in and we’ll talk about it later.’ It’s so important to get these women comfortable with money, comfortable coming to meetings. You don’t need to add money to the grieving process. You don’t want your first experience with an advisor to be: ‘I’m sorry for your loss. Let’s talk about changing titles on the accounts.’ It’s really a time to settle and find strength from family, friends and community before you need to push through this stuff. And you can do that with a trusted advisor.”
4. Make sure your accounts are titled properly. Jointly held accounts tend to be the gold standard. Merrill Lynch advisor Mary McDougall, based in St. Paul, Minnesota, favors JTWROS, or joint tenants with right of survivorship — a vehicle that allows the surviving spouse to inherit the contents of an account without triggering a gift tax. Brokerage and bank accounts should be held jointly so that they can’t be frozen during probate. And McDougall says it’s a good idea to have any household account — utility, telephone, TV — held in both names so that when a death does occur, the surviving spouse is on record as an existing customer.