Wednesday Morning, 3 AM: Estate Planning for the Little Things

A couple of nights before my kids and I left on a recent family visit to California, I woke up at 3 AM from a nightmare that involved a plane crash and thought, “If that plane goes down, my wife is in serious trouble.”

I wasn’t thinking about the emotional aspects (which I’d selfishly like to assume would be devastating) or even the long-term financial stuff (we’ve taken care of our life insurance needs and periodically update our estate plan). Instead, I was thinking about the day-to-day practical things, like the physical act of paying our bills and our mortgage.

Like most families, we’ve got a division of labor in our house, and the responsibility of making sure our bills get paid falls on my side of the ledger. To make things easier, I use the online bill pay feature at our bank. And while we still get some paper bills, many of our bills now come in e-bill form.

Unfortunately, those e-bills are tied to my bank login, even though the payments come from a joint bank account. If my wife logs into our bank account, she can’t see my online bill pay recipients or those utilities where we receive e-bills. She can only see that information for any payee that she’s entered into the bank’s system. Without knowing where bills are going or how we make certain payments, it would be hard for her to keep things running smoothly, particularly during a time of high emotional stress.

As this all raced through my head, I dragged myself out of bed and put together what I thought was a pretty good early Mother’s Day present:

  • Contact information for our professional advisors, like our estate planning attorney and our CPA. While my wife could eventually track these things down, putting this information in a readily accessible place should make life a little easier.
  • Life insurance information, including death benefit amounts, policy numbers, and company phone numbers.
  • Account information for our utilities, including account numbers, where my wife could find physical statements, and how I’ve been making bill payments (e.g., auto draft, on demand, etc.).
  • Access to my important passwords.

That last bullet point is the kicker, and it’s the one that separates what I did from the typical “organizer.” I’ve been advocating to others about the benefits of using password managers to store passwords while failing to take full advantage of some of their more powerful features, like the ability to share passwords with designated people.

I’d previously used our password manager to share our Netflix password with my wife, but that’s about it. While the ability to watch House of Cards from any device is important, it might not be the most pressing piece of information to have in case of a true emergency.

Now, I’ve used the sharing feature of our password manager to share the passwords for our joint bank account, mortgage account, credit card, my Health Savings Account, and the 529 accounts we’ve set up for our kids. What’s more, if I ever change any of those passwords (which of course I should on a regular basis), my wife will automatically have the updates available in the password manager when she logs in.

After my own sweat-induced panic, I suggested to a client couple that we go through the same exercise during a review of their estate plan. What started out as a small task list grew to be many more items than anticipated. The couple now has summer project of identifying all the things that a survivor might have to pick up, as well as to figure out the best way of transferring the information stored in the head of the person who is currently performing those tasks.

If you are the responsible party in your household, I encourage you to think about all the financial things you do that just get lumped into the minutiae of daily living, and then ask yourself how your surviving spouse might handle those things if you died or were disabled. It might not be the same as reading the most recent beach-worthy novel, but the long-term payoff is probably better.

 

About Ben Birken

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