Q: I’ve been married for over 50 years and I’ve always personally managed our finances and investments. I’m worried how my wife would manage if something were to happen to me unexpectedly. What are the most important things I need to do to prepare her?
A: Congratulations! Five decades of marriage is an incredible achievement. It’s not unusual for a single person to manage the majority of financial matters. As a financial advisor, I’ve seen this scenario regularly, and the issue doesn’t seem to be abating. Many men and women have managed finances alone for decades, with little collaboration from their partner. You’re certainly not alone.
It's extremely daunting, if not impossible, to distill a lifetime of financial experience and pass it along to a partner with little experience or interest. Thankfully, there are some simple things you can do now to prepare.
To start, create a physical copy of your most important usernames and passwords, with instructions on their use. Personally, I have a physical spreadsheet, stored in a safe location that I update every six months. This spreadsheet includes instructions and passwords for retirement accounts, life insurance, mortgages, utilities, subscriptions and other financial items. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau website has great templates for organizing these details. This basic information will help your partner address their most critical and time sensitive needs when the time comes.
The bigger question moving forward is who will manage more complicated aspects of your finances on an ongoing basis. It’s reasonable to expect some of the basics like bills and subscriptions to be handled by your partner, even without past experience. However, it’s far less likely to assume they would eagerly take over things like portfolio management or advanced tax planning if they haven’t shown interest in those tasks previously. Dropping these in the lap of your grieving partner will be overwhelming during an already difficult time.
If your personal network lacks someone who can step in and aid your partner with these specialized tasks, you need to expand beyond your immediate circle. Even if you think you know people who could step in, that expectation should be made explicit in advance. If you aren’t fortunate enough to have a trusted family member or friend with these skills, then it is imperative to seek out a professional.
When it comes to an area like investment management, you may not feel ready to hand over this task yet. That’s completely normal, but you can begin exploring your options with varying levels of commitment. Start by interviewing at least 2-3 different financial professionals. You need to decide who would be the best fit for your partner in the event it is needed. This decision should be collaborative, ensuring it will be suitable for your surviving partner. You can even hire a financial advisor and permit them to assist with a portion of your portfolio as a trial run, to determine if you feel comfortable and trust their level of expertise and care. Look for a fiduciary who operates on a fee-only basis, to ensure they are incentivized to operate with your partners best interest in mind.
Ultimately, these are decisions you and your partner can make together. Doing so will give you both confidence that if the primary financial manager of the household is no longer able to fulfill that duty, you have a plan in place with someone trusted who can assist your partner when the need arises. Such joint decisions grant the entire family peace and confidence. While this takes a lot of preparation and work, the end result is priceless. One of the best things you can do for your partner is to give them a sense of financial security and confidence during the emotional upheaval of losing a loved one.
Zach Harney, CFP®, CIMA®, AIF® is a Wealth Advisor at Monterey Private Wealth, Inc., an independent wealth management firm in Monterey. He welcomes questions you may have regarding investments, taxes, retirement, or estate planning. Send your questions to: Zach Harney, 2340 Garden Road Suite 202, Monterey, CA 93940 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.