Last week, I was gripped by a story in The New York Times about Chanel Reynolds, who was widowed suddenly and thrown into the chaos of piecing together the crazy quilt of her family’s finances. As the Times’ Ron Lieber recounts: “In the many months of suffering after Mr. Hernando’s death in July 2009, she beat herself up while spending dozens of hours excavating their financial life and slowly reassembling it….[there was] a will with no signature, little emergency savings and an unknown number of accounts with passwords that had been in Mr. Hernando’s head.”
The story resonated because it is not so dissimilar to my own. There is no good primer I have found on what to do when you are suddenly widowed. In any case, in the amount of time it takes to find a death certificate, you should already (in my case) have picked up a dozen copies of one, accepted your post as Personal Representative, started the (maddening) probate process, reported to the Social Security Administration on behalf of your child, and done any number of mundane but forgettable things like cancelling your spouse’s cell phone service (more easily said than done); stopping credit cards and closing accounts you didn’t know existed; and without going into too much detail, beginning the terrifying process of discovering and exorcising long-caged financial demons. Like Reynolds, I followed a telephone script: “Hello my name is Andrea Bennett and my husband just died and I need access to X account.”
Having also gone through such unimaginable obstacles, Reynolds decided to start a website that serves as a resource for those in similar situations, offering financial advice, providing free templates for a master checklist and offering starter forms to draft a will, living will and power of attorney. As you might expect, various estate and tax specialists and lawyers weighed in on the benefits or perils of following the site’s counsel or doing a DIY adaptation of Ms. Reynolds’ own will. Certainly you would do well to take her non-financial advice (leave traces of yourself, tighten your friendships).
But really, your takeaway from Reynolds’ story – and countless others just like it – should be that you must have a plan. You should know what your spouse is doing with the family finances, and your spouse should know what you are doing. It is up to you to decide how you will manage the money (“yours, mine and ours” accounts? An allowance for each of you? Joint everything?). You can decide what works for you, as long as you choose together and stick to the script as well as you can.
What have you left undone? Do you have great tips for families who need to start organizing their finances? A story of your own? Share it here.