Of all the posts I have written, by far this is the most important for a married couple to read. Sadly, I have worked with too many people where the points discussed below were not done by the more financially involved spouse. Not only did it leave a mess for the surviving spouse, it left them in a very vulnerable state.
This post provides practical points to consider that can help your spouse pick up where you left off. Not only is this an important part of your stewardship responsibility, but a way you can love your spouse and provide for them during a challenging time.
I encourage you to take the time to read and think about this. It is my hope that it will help you avoid the situations I deal with regularly.
Why Does It Matter?
Usually, one spouse tends to handle the finances, and the other is less involved. Sometimes the uninvolved spouse isn’t interested in finance. But other times it can be because life is full, requiring the uninvolved spouse to focus on other areas of need and not the finances.
If you are reading this post, you are probably the more financially involved spouse. This isn’t a bad thing. Someday you will die. Yes, we all know this, but few live their lives with that reality in mind. We procrastinate and think we will live a long time. Since we don’t know when we will die, preparing now for that eventuality is important.
1 Timothy 5:8 says “But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”
An important part of our stewardship responsibility (which you can read more about here) is providing a firm foundation for our spouse to carry on after we die.
Sadly, one of the fastest growing parts of my business are widows who have no idea about finance. Their husbands took care of all the finances from paying the bills to investing. They did a great job while they were alive, but their wife was lost when they died. It left some of them terrified, not knowing if they had enough to pay their bills going forward. Others were forced into making major decisions during an emotionally vulnerable time.
With a little bit of planning the husbands could have helped their wives be prepared for their deaths.
How To Help Your Spouse
Here are a few practical ways to prepare your spouse for your death:
1. Include Your Spouse in the Finances
Though they may not have the time or inclination to be involved in the day-to-day finances, try your best to include them. Holding a monthly, quarterly or even annual meeting to discuss where things are, what decisions were made and who you are working with, can give them some familiarity with the finances.
2. Get Organized
Being organized can help your spouse if you pass away. Having a list of all the accounts, with account/policy numbers, institution names, contact person names and phone numbers, will provide all the information they need to get a handle on their finances.
Establishing a filing system that retains the account history (ie old statements, estate planning documents etc so they have the information they will need in an easy to access format is invaluable. Your spouse may choose to use a different filing system, but at least everything will be organized, providing a firm foundation for however they choose to organize things.
Quite a few times I have had widows come to a meeting with unopened envelopes containing statements, not knowing where any of their important documents are. Some people are not organized, and when they are dealing with grief, it becomes even more difficult. If there is a filing system already established, and they know who to contact about their accounts, it becomes more manageable.
3. Credit Cards – Are They Account Owners or Authorized Users?
This is an important point, that is often overlooked. When you have a credit card, there are two distinct roles someone can have with the account. The account owner is the person who is legally responsible for the debt charged to the card. Their name is on the card and on the account. The account owner can also add an authorized user, who receives a card in their name, and can use the card to purchase items, but is not legally responsible for the debt charged to the card.
When the spouse who is the account owner dies, the credit card company will normally terminate the account, leaving the surviving spouse without a credit card. Therefore, it is beneficial for each spouse to be the owner of at least one credit card, and add the other spouse as an authorized user (if you pay the balance off each month).
Having a credit card account owned by each of you is essential for two reasons. If you die, your spouse will still have access to credit. It also enables your spouse to continue to improve their credit score. Credit scores are individually calculated, so if your spouse is using your credit card (as an authorized user), it gets included in your credit score not theirs. Your credit score not only helps with applying for loans, but also impacts your car and homeowner insurance rates. If everything is in your name, your spouse’s credit score will be lower, and in turn their costs will be higher.
Ideally, having two credit cards, one on each of the major networks (Mastercard and Visa), with one owned by each of you can help reduce this issue.
4. Ensure Your Estate Planning Documents Are Up To Date
In Pennsylvania, if one spouse is incapacitated or dies, the other spouse generally takes over without needing any estate planning documents. However, it is helpful to have a thought-out estate plan that is written down (you can learn more here). Not only does it give your spouse an idea of your wishes that they can choose to incorporate going forward, but it also allows them to focus on other things without needing to update the plan right away.
Checking that your beneficiaries have been updated on your retirement plan, life insurance etc is also an extremely important step to take. When a couple first gets married, this isn’t a priority to do, and can be forgotten over the years. This can result in the parents or siblings receiving the retirement account instead of the spouse. Taking the time to work on this can save your spouse a lot of time and hassle, and ensure the assets provide for them.
5. Find a Good Financial Advisor
You may already have a financial advisor, but does your spouse feel comfortable working with them? If they don’t, I would encourage you to find ones they will.
An estimated 70-80% of widows change financial advisors within a year of their husband’s passing. Primarily it is because the advisor had a relationship with her husband and not her. It is difficult enough to make an informed decision about a financial advisor when life is “normal”, but having to find one out of necessity while you grieve makes this much more difficult.
I would encourage you to include your spouse more in your meetings with your financial advisor if possible. If your spouse doesn’t feel comfortable with your current financial advisor, consider finding one who they do feel comfortable with. This gives you an opportunity to ensure they are a good advisor who will look out for your spouse if you pass away. Even if you prefer working with someone else, this is about helping your spouse. One of the worst things that can happen is for your spouse to leave a good professional and end up with one who isn’t.
Even if you don’t use a financial advisor currently, you may want to consider meeting with one every couple of years to ensure you aren’t missing anything. Include your spouse in those meetings so they can build a relationship with them. The key is finding an honest and competent financial advisor who will take care of your spouse when you pass away. Here is a post about how to find a good Christian financial advisor, and provides questions to ask in your search.
When I work with a widow, and her husband took some of the steps outlined above to ensure she was taken care of, she is so appreciative of his forethought and care. In a time of grieving, it brings great comfort to her to know that she will be taken care of.
Yes, this takes time and a lot of thought. Your spouse may have no interest in the finances, thereby making this much more difficult. But I would encourage you to do what you can.
Points To Consider
- Are you leaving a mess for your spouse or as good a situation as you can?
- If you fail to plan, you plan to fail. Planning for your death (though unpleasant) is the ultimate act of caring for your spouse.
- Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today. You may not have a tomorrow.