I WAS AT WORK WHEN my daughter called. “Grandpa was taken to the hospital in an ambulance, and you need to meet Mom and Grandma there as soon as you can.”
I entered the hospital room 45 minutes later, and I saw my mom in tears standing next to my dad’s lifeless body. Dad’s hair and face were spotted with wood chips and dirt, and he was wearing a torn flannel shirt and old blue jeans. He had spent the day working in his backyard, something he loved to do.
As I looked at my parents, all I could think about were some of the last words that I remember my dad saying. It had been just five days earlier. The family was gathered in our living room after Thanksgiving dinner, and my daughter asked, “Grandpa, what was the best time of your life?”
My dad looked at Mom, his wife of 54 years, and smiled as he answered, “The best time of my life has been since I retired because I have been able to spend more time with my wife and best friend.”
Although I didn’t know it at the time, my dad’s short answer to my daughter’s simple question would cause me to change my retirement plan. I was age 53, and I’d always envisioned retiring sometime between 65 and 70. But my dad’s death at age 74, the result of his second heart attack, would become the catalyst to reframe my future plans and accelerate my retirement timeline.
Like many engineers, I created my own spreadsheet and made my own retirement projections. Unfortunately, I never revisited that spreadsheet or the assumptions that went into it. Although I probably created my custom retirement spreadsheet more than 20 years ago, I never felt the need to go back to it because I loved my job and I was now in my best earning years.
When my dad died, I knew practically nothing about my parents’ finances. I had tried to talk to them about their financial situation on several occasions, just in case something happened, but they never wanted to talk about money. All I knew was that when Dad retired, he assumed responsibility for paying the bills, balancing the checkbook and handling their investments.
It had been 12 years since Mom had turned over the finances to Dad. And now, because of the sudden loss, she couldn’t concentrate, and had difficulty paying her bills and getting her finances organized. To make things worse, we couldn’t find the passwords for any of their accounts. Mom needed me to help her get smart about her financial situation quickly.
It wasn’t quick. Over the next three years, my mom and I had a financial baptism by fire as I slowly helped her uncover, unpack and clean up her financial situation. We interacted with lawyers, financial advisors, and insurance and annuity companies. We dealt with banks, health insurance companies, Dad’s former employers, Medicare and the Social Security Administration. We learned numerous financial lessons, and some of the harder lessons were taught to us through high fees and excessive taxes.
One thing that was particularly frustrating about my dad’s finances: He seemed to have money all over the place. Dad had stock certificates in shoe boxes, drawers and filing cabinets. He held some stocks in his name only, and others were in both of their names. And he had numerous investment accounts, checking accounts and certificates of deposit in different locations.
It took nearly two years to track down all the money. At least we assume it’s all the money. I could imagine my dad opening some of these accounts 40 years ago because of an offer of a free toaster or a digital clock radio and then just leaving the money there for decades. How else would something like this occur?
Then I thought about my wife and me, and we seemed to have money all over the place as well. We had accounts at Vanguard Group, Charles Schwab, TD Ameritrade, the federal government’s Thrift Savings Plan, TreasuryDirect and our local credit union. My wife might be in the same situation as my mom if something were to happen to me. I’m not sure how we got so many accounts, but I’m fairly sure I didn’t get a free toaster or digital clock radio for opening them.
We started to consolidate our accounts as much as possible. What I discovered was that having so many accounts obscured our net worth. I was not in the habit of checking all our investments regularly, and I practically never traded. I was pleasantly surprised to see our net worth when we looked at the balances and did the math on our accounts.
I had been on financial cruise control, with my retirement set for 65, but my dad’s last words about the best time of his life caused me to rethink my own retirement plans. I’d never considered retiring prior to 65, but after cleaning up and clarifying our financial situation, I ended up retiring at 56.
Dad was a loving and devoted husband. He loved his four kids, his 14 grandchildren and his church. But he didn’t love thinking about or talking about money. When the topic of money came up in a conversation, he often said to me, “Charlie, there’s a lot more to life than money.”
Death is a sobering reminder of the frailty and fleeting nature of life. But death can also be an important opportunity to reevaluate your own priorities and values. It was for me. Today, I’m happy to say that I’m able to spend my time with my wife and best friend. Retirement has been the best time of my life.
I’m thankful to my dad for the financial lessons he taught me while he was alive and after he passed. I loved my dad, and still do.
Chuck Staley and his wife Gina have five children between ages seven and 30. He worked for 35 years as a Department of Defense engineer at Edwards Air Force Base before retiring in January 2022. Chuck now volunteers as a part-time pastor at a small church. He recently started a sole proprietorship, Walk Worthy Solutions, to train federal employees about retirement planning and leadership. Chuck enjoys walking daily with his wife, reading, home improvement projects, and traveling with his family.
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Thank you for sharing this, Chuck. It is a quite touching. Enjoy your retirement and wonderful family time.
Chuck – thanks for sharing your experience and suggestions. I feel fortunate that when dad died (2011, 1 yr prior to mom) he an I had spoken over the years about finance. Also, I understood the types of accounts he had. There were many moving pieces (as there typically are), but they came together nicely during the following months as I looked after mom’s finances, assisted living expenses, etc. Their Living Trust proved exceedingly helpful as well with the two Power’s of Attorney, etc.
I’m single, and do have a Living Trust. Both my siblings know where to find “the book” which contains paper copies of all of my accounts, insurance products, etc. IMO, it makes all the difference to have one’s affairs in good order – for the sake of those who will manage one’s estate.
Two items that I feel are worthy of most person’s time / effort are:
1) Conduct a formal Financial Plan pre-retirement to explore the myriad options that may unfold, and
2) Test various scenarios to understand the hypothetical impact of the early death of one of the persons, the sufficiency of Life Insurance, and a potential need for Assisted Living and/or Long Term Care.
God’s blessings to you in your retirement and influence you may have on the lives around you.
Jim, thank you for those great suggestions, and I agree completely.
You wrote “Today, I’m happy to say that I’m able to spend my time with my wife and best friend. Retirement has been the best time of my life.”
You have your priorities straight in my book. My Dad died when he was 53 and I was 25. My loss has only grown deeper with time, but that experience taught me to never take my time for granted and to structure my life to spend as much time with my loved ones as possible.
Thanks, Richard. I’m sorry about the loss of your Dad. It sounds like you have been able to learn and grow from that experience in a positive way.
I guess this is why there are those reappearing articles about millions in unclaimed funds every year.
There are various way to transfer info upon one’s death: paper, attorneys, etc. One way I am leaning towards; I have an online password safe. While their purpose is intended for passwords, one can also upload documents, notes, pdf’s etc. Should I demise, I have access arranged with a couple of my children. In this safe I have all my account info, notes on where to find stuff, POCs, etc. Whatever they need to know to settle my estate. Of course, if this is ever hacked, I’m homeless, but hey, nothing is perfect:)
I went through something similar myself. My Mom predeceased my Dad by five years. Even though he closed her estate, there were many accounts still in my Mom’s name, plus quite a few still in joint name. I was surprised to find that the bank allowed my Dad to deposit checks in her name, as they knew she had died. As a result, in addition to handling my Dad’s estate, I had to reopen my Mom’s estate to transfer his and her holdings into a single estate account before disbursement. Then I had to hire a contractor to fix a long-ignored and severe foundation problem with their home. The whole process took 2-1/2 years.
Thanks for sharing. The death of a loved one can certainly be a multi-faceted experience from a personal and a financial level.
My brother was terminally ill. I discovered he did not have his estate setup the way he wanted so changes were made. He died four days after signing his estate documents. Interestingly, my Dad died earlier that month. They both had trusts and the settlement process went smoothly for both. But settling two family estates at the same time was not exactly a fun process. I was glad that they both had things the way they wanted them.
It’s interesting that some people don’t have estate planning done. I know people who don’t buy life insurance because they were somewhat superstitious and maybe the same thing applies to estate planning. Maybe people who have had to settle an estate that wasn’t well setup are more inspired to have theirs arranged?
Chuck, I’m sorry for your loss and what you had to deal with afterwards. I don’t think it’s the legacy a parent leaves intentionally but they probably do not realize what will happen.
Thank you. The minor inconvenience my Mom and I went through after Dad died is small compared to the legacy of great memories we created over the years.
Chuck, I’m so sorry that the loss of your dad was followed by so many years of stress. It’s great that your mom had you to help sort things out.
I was equally unlucky, for an opposite reason. My dad was an obsessive estate planner. He stored a metal box on the top shelf of the linen closet in the bathroom that contained his will, financial documents, house deed, burial instructions, the whole megillah. Every couple of years when I was in town he’d take the box down and walk me through it again.
The morning after his sudden death, I flew home. His live-in girlfriend and I went to the closet and took the box down and opened it. Empty. I couldn’t believe it. I actually put the box back up on the shelf, closed the closet door, opened it again, took the box down again and reopened it. Still empty.
I think I know what happened. My dad loved surprises. He and his girlfriend had planned a trip to Arizona the following month to look for a retirement condo on a golf course. (He didn’t play, he just loved golf course scenery.) I’m quite sure he was planning a surprise side trip to Vegas to marry her, and he probably took the entire trove of documents to some friend-of-a-friend lawyer to add her to his will and the deed to his house and rewrite his instructions.
But who? This was 1992. There was no email trail to follow. I called a few of his friends, and even a couple of local estate lawyers, hoping to get lucky. Nothing. We never found zip. So legally he died intestate.
Dealing with the state of Illinois and two predatory siblings who hadn’t spoken to my dad in years (and certainly weren’t in his will) required me to hire a very, very expensive lawyer. I was finally allowed to sell the house, which turned out to be the only thing of substantial value we could prove he owned. We three siblings split the proceeds. The girlfriend got nothing except some jewelry in the safe deposit box that I literally stole from the estate to give to her. She had to go back to work.
I learned the lesson. If I fall out of my chair in the next ten minutes, my wife has a document in her email box with all my account numbers and passwords. She knows where the will and trust documents are, and where I want my ashes scattered. One less thing to worry about.
Wow. We had it easy in comparison. I’m sorry it was so hard, but glad you are learning from the experience and trying to make things easier on those that are left.
I’m so sorry for the loss of your dad but thank you for sharing your story. Seeing the scattered state of older family members’ finances has also inspired my husband and me to get our estate plan and finances together.
I also resonated with how profoundly your father’s sudden death affected your own plans. My dad died suddenly at 61, the year I turned 40. He never got to retire. I remember thinking “What if I’m two-thirds done with my own life?” It made me think more purposefully about my own life. Then, as I came closer myself to the age my dad was when he died, I also got much more motivated about taking steps to improve my own health.
Yes, coming face to face with death has a way of changing your perspective and your priorities. Like you, the desire to avoid some of the confusion regarding finances after I’m gone motivated my wife and I to get our estate plan current. And like you, it motivated me to make my own health a higher priority. Thanks for sharing.
I refer y’all to this article a while back. It’s solid advice and a good place to start.
That’s a great article and, essentially, what Mom and I learned as a result of going through it together.
Chuck – Belated condolences on the loss of your father. Your experience helping your mom with her finances is similar my own after my dad passed away in 2011. These stories make a compelling case for a commitment to inventory all family HH financial data on banks accounts / investments / liabilities in some form of user-friendly, password-protected software database.
Having been a software trainer in years past, I’ve had the opportunity to play with numerous personal finance software apps and web-based options over the past 30 years.
The best option (for my money) for both ease of setup & ease of use is still Quicken. Having been spun off a few years ago from Intuit, Quicken now seems more nimble and customer-focused than in the past. The user interphase is simple and intuitive. I run the Windows version of Quicken for my business and the Mac version for family finances at home. Both versions of Quicken for Windows and Mac are largely identical in appearance and functionality.
Quicken also owns / offers a free, bare bones online option (called Mint). It is easy to use but has limited functionality for tracking investment accounts. Both our adult offspring started with Mint while in college before eventually graduating to Quicken. I strongly prefer having the Quicken software installed on my hard drive, largely for data security reasons.
Yes, many banks and brokerage houses (including Fidelity) offer solid web-based options for capturing and inventorying HH financial assets and accounts. My take: I’m hesitant having any single financial institution that I do business with having full access on details related to all our other assets / liabilities / investment holdings.
I feel more comfortable just spending $75 – $100 annually to renew my Quicken software license. Many financial website “terms of service” agreements typically require the end-user to first agree to receiving periodic marketing material tied to the data they share in exchange for having “free” access to online asset inventory tools. Having my private financial information used (via data mining) to market other financial products / services back to me (or to my heirs, after my demise) is a strong no-go item. Call me a big data skeptic or merely just paranoid.
Quicken auto-updates daily our bank balances and investment share values and also downloads / imports all new transactions for each account. 90% of our monthly HH bills are set up for auto-pay via bank EFT transfers. Reconciling accounts is a breeze, and our HH net worth is recalculated daily and shown on a “dashboard” screen for easy review. YTD Income and expense reports / tax filing reports / budgeting, etc…all are features we find very helpful (likewise, our CPA), particularly since both my wife and I are self-employed.
Most importantly, both my wife and our oldest son (our designated backup executor, who lives in another state) will have full access to our password protected Quicken data when I depart, since my Quicken data file automatically backs up to a cloud-based / password protected family data server.
Were I to become incapacitated or pass away suddenly, providing my family the time to breath and grieve (without any added stress associated with our finances) is a high priority. I take comfort knowing both my wife and son will have zero issues accessing / understanding the breadth and depth of our financial situation.
Thanks for sharing your reasons to use Quicken! I’ve heard of it, but never used it nor have I seen a demo of it, but it does sound interesting enough to check it out. I use a Macbook laptop and use Numbers for tracking everything, but it sound like Quicken may offer more perks. Thanks again!
Chuck-Thank you for sharing this story about you and your dad.
Sounds very similar to my own story. We went through this twice with my parents, then my wife’s. Doing the unclaimed property search was a revelation as well.
I managed the retirement plans for a major defense contractor and found ALL the engineers had their own unique spreadsheet. Many that I saw did not consider inflation and had very linear investment growth. Consistency was also an issue. My caution to them was to find a good online calculator and use it as a consistent sounding board to their spreadsheet.
Thanks, Mark. I’ve decided that making my own spreadsheet may have been sufficient when I was 22, but as I got closer to retirement it is better to go with something that has been tested and used by many others. I prefer not to my own custom spreadsheet that may have math errors. Retirement is too important.
Your article rang so many bells for me, Chuck. My husband of 47 years also died suddenly during the pandemic, only nine months after we brought our grandson from another country to live with us. Fortunately, I had asked my husband to prepare a cheat sheet of all the financial passwords as well as a written guide to all our assets. Thanks to these, your three year journey to locate and consolidate assets took me only three months and went pretty smoothly. I keep those documents updated so that my grandson can be cared for should anything happen to me and to ease the estate settlement process. Referring to a comment here about bank failures (or account hacking), I have accounts at two different banks, one is joint with my daughter, the other is in my name only. Eventually I will put my grandson on this one.
Thanks, Linda. As I’ve discovered, this scenario has been repeated constantly by many of my friends and co-workers. We’re not alone. The good news is, you and I are taking some positive steps to help those that follow us.
Great article Chuck, thank you. My father had a living trust, I believe, when he passed in 2014. My mother had passed many years before that. My sisters were the trustees, it was all handled with the help of an attorney, and his very modest estate was closed without even one complaint, issue, or problem. Interestingly, he had a request in the trust to never be placed in, live in, or die in a nursing home. Because he retained his faculties until he passed at 95, my sisters were able to honor that wish and he died in peace at home. Having a bullet proof estate plan in place made the lives of me and my 5 siblings so much easier and caused me to update my will. All the best.
Patrick, we ended up deciding to get a living trust as well and recently reviewed it after three years. We were amazed at how many changes we made in that short time. It can be easy to let time go by and the result may be outdated estate planning documents, like what my mother experienced.
My parents last signed their will when I was 16 and I was 53 when Dad died. According to the will, if both of my parents would have died, I would have needed to move to Michigan and live with my aunt and uncle. Keeping estate planning documents up to date is important.
Chuck, thanks for the inspiring story. I’ve been involved in settling several complex estates. Those experiences have convinced me that a well organized, coherent, and communicated estate is a gift we give to our children. Best wishes on you retirement.
Thanks, Rick. I agree on the importance of a well-organized way to communicate the status of everything to our children. I now have a notebook that both my wife and I review every 6 months to ensure a smoother transition when either or both of us pass.
Excellent words of wisdom that resonate with me. I am 79 and my wife 84, we have been married 54 years, four children 13 grandchildren.
My wife has little interest in our finances and like your parents we had investments in different places, including two stocks held by different agents.
Three years ago I consolidated everything with Fidelity, including the two stocks and linked it all with our bank. I print out statements each month and put them in a final instructions folder with insurance and pension info as well.
It’s not perfect, but it will help and has made all our finances so much easier to handle and made tax time easier as well.
Everyone should heed your words of advice.
Richard, thanks. Love the idea of the final instructions folder. My wife and I have a version of that ourselves.
I just consolidated my multiple brokerages I’d opened over the years at FIDO. It will simplify and streamline but I would be lying if I said I am not scared to have all my eggs in one basket.
Having all your assets at 1 brokerage house is not the same as having all eggs in one basket. You can be very diversified and have many ‘eggs’ at Fidelity or any other firm.
My concern with complete consolidation is hacking (or other server failure). I think of the line in Blade Runner 2049 where the family photos were lost when the servers went down. I wonder how long before AI makes serious challenges to security protocols.
Otherwise, yes, consolidation makes things easier.
If there is hacking of this magnitude, it would probably happen at all the major firms. They have safeguards in place. Doesn’t mean it cannot happen, but worrying about remote possibilities like this causes undue stress. One can worry about nuclear war, asteroid hitting earth, etc
We never can lower our guard, can we?