The Mary Jean List

Howard Rohleder

MY FATHER-IN-LAW Carson was a stereotypical engineer—organized and precise. All four of his children know the motto “measure twice, cut once.” Carson applied these traits to his finances, which he managed on behalf of himself and Mary Jean, his wife. Mary Jean depended on this.

As they aged, Carson maintained his mental acuity, but he was the first of the two to deteriorate physically. Mary Jean was strong physically but slowly surrendered to Alzheimer’s.

Before her diagnosis, Carson made a concerted effort to teach Mary Jean how to manage their finances in case, someday, she might have to do it on her own. They had an investment manager, so the actual investing was taken care of. Carson wanted her to be able to navigate the banking, bill paying and check book. With an engineer’s precision, he created a list instructions laying out who to contact and how to handle the monthly financial chores.

It became apparent that this wasn’t going to work. Possibly due to the early effects of as-yet undiagnosed Alzheimer’s, Mary Jean couldn’t grasp what needed to be done. That was when he turned to us. I wrote a HumbleDollar article based on what we learned from this experience.

Carson’s list, which my wife and I referred to as the “Mary Jean list,” guided us when he passed away. It was such a good idea that we adopted it ourselves. Enshrined in a manila folder in the front of our file cabinet is a three-page list of steps and instructions for my wife to follow, should I die first.

Just over a page is devoted to 15 steps. Each step refers to an individual contact: attorney, accountant, investment company, bank, insurance agent, pension, Social Security, health insurance… the list goes on. There’s a name, a phone number, questions to ask each person and which documents that person might need. A majority of these documents are in the same file drawer as the Mary Jean list.

With so much of our financial life documented electronically, many of the references also note where to find the appropriate Excel spreadsheet or how to access the online account.

There are suggestions for consolidating and simplifying our accounts. Right now, I have two rollover IRAs that could be consolidated. We have two checking accounts when one should be sufficient. I manage our investments now so the list anticipates the need to turn that over to an investment manager.

Another half-page is devoted to a summary of our bills. Everything but the local water bill comes by email. Some are paid automatically from a credit card, while others are deducted from a checking account. Some require initiating an electronic payment. There are suggestions about canceling certain subscriptions and credit cards.

The last page and a half is an index of where to find important documents. We have four file cabinets and a safe deposit box. With the ability to access accounts online, I’m reducing the amount of paper I receive each month. I’m also working to reduce the volume of paper I keep, which should cut back on the need for filing cabinets.

I have maintained this list for at least 10 years. What surprised me is how much maintenance it takes. Things change. As I moved into retirement, I consolidated accounts, which made some references obsolete. My mother died and I inherited new accounts. Our insurance agent retired. We moved and established new attorney and accountant relationships, and many of our monthly bills changed. I recommend reviewing the list annually, or when major changes occur, such as a move.

This list was developed with my wife in mind, but it could be used by my children if they’re the ones handling things. It includes details that my wife knows, but my children may not. Part of the review process is to have my wife read it over. Ensuring that it’s understandable to her will be the key to its usefulness someday.

Howard Rohleder, a former chief executive of a community hospital, retired early after more than 30 years in hospital administration. In retirement, he enjoys serving on several nonprofit boards, exploring walking paths with his wife Susan, and visiting their six grandchildren. A little-known fact: In May 1994, Howard was featured—along with five others—on the cover of Kiplinger’s Personal Finance for an article titled “Secrets of My Investment Success.” Check out his previous articles.

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