When the subject of death comes up, a term that’s often used to describe the feelings of those left behind is “loss.” But there is more to that loss than the loss of companionship. There’s also the loss of information, especially if the person who died also handled the family finances.
In my 30 years of experience advising families I have often had to help and council widows who depended on their husbands to manage the family finances. It’s fairly common for families to have several investment relationships. It’s quite rare to find that the spouse who managed the money actually did a good job keeping records and keeping his spouse “in the loop” when it comes to money management. And when her spouse dies, the widow has to deal with a host of organizations whose primary focus is on making sure that they don’t distribute money to anyone who is not entitled to it. The liability is too great. So we typically have a widow dealing with the death of a loved one, plus the Social Security Administration, the husband’s pension plan, and two, three or more brokerage firms who handled the couple’s investments. (For more, see: Estate Planning: 16 Things to Do Before You Die.)
Who Handles the Finances?
One of my earliest experiences was with a widow whose husband took care of all the family finances. He made the investment decisions, paid the bills and balanced the checkbook. He died suddenly and his wife did not know what to do. Childless and with no near relatives, she needed help. (For more, see: Estate Planning for a Surviving Spouse.)
While her husband’s will was up to date, during our first meeting she revealed that she knew nothing about her financial condition. She did not know how much she was worth, what her income sources were or what it cost her to live. It took a while to learn where all the investments were, what her income sources were and how much she needed to maintain her lifestyle. (For related reading, see: Advanced Estate Planning: Information for Caregivers and Survivors.)
Over the years I found that this situation was not uncommon. Balancing a checkbook, paying bills and making investment decisions does not appeal to a lot of people. They are happy to allow their partner to do that for them. The problem with this division of labor does not appear until the individual in charge of the finances disappears either through death or incapacitation.
Helping Manage the Transition
This is the point at which a trusted financial advisor can ride to the rescue. A good one is willing to go through records to see what it takes to run the household. He will be able to determine the survivor’s income. He will know how to identify the family’s investment and bank accounts even if the records are incomplete. Just as important, a financial advisor should be willing to provide more than simply financial advice to the surviving spouse. This is the point where questions arise about selling the extra car, upgrades around the home, moving to be nearer the children – or moving into a senior living facility. These may well be the questions a trusted advisor is able to answer. (For more, see: 6 Estate Planning Must-Haves.)
Advisors who are simply money managers will, at this point, probably find themselves replaced. According to PriceWaterhouseCoopers’ Global Private Banking/Wealth Management Survey, 2011, more than half (55%) of the survivors will fire their financial advisor following the death of a spouse. A lot of that will be due to the changing level of service that a surviving spouse needs. (For related reading, see: Why Do Widows Leave Their Advisors?)
But there is actually a better answer to the financial confusion that often follows a death. The best time to gather comprehensive information about family finances is when the couple is still alive.
Why a Will Might Not Be Enough
With due respect to the legal profession, will and trust documents are written to specify how assets are to be distributed at death. With few exceptions, they rarely get down to the kind of detail that allows the surviving spouse to take up where the deceased has left off.
What is needed is a specific book of instructions itemizing financial assets, their location and their ownership. Income will be vitally important to the surviving spouse. Realizing that income will change once one’s spouse dies, it’s important to know what the survivor’s income sources will be. Finally, the cost of maintaining the surviving spouse can be determined while both are still alive much more easily than after one has passed away. And since so many transactions now take place via password protected Internet portals, the survivor needs a list of those portals and passwords. (For further reading, see: The Importance of Estate and Contingency Planning.)
When someone dies, the surviving spouse will always have a period of grieving. But if a little though is given to preparing for the inevitable, grief does not have to be accompanied by fear of an unknown financial future.