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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I have a similar exhaustive ‘Dad has croaked – now what’ list that is maintained (and updated every year) in my attorneys vault. Every year I send a reminder to my kids to keep my attorneys phone number handy as a ‘Dad’s Attorney’ contact and use that as the first step. I also instruct them to get a dozen copies of my death certificate asap as it may be needed to deal with SS, brokerages and banks. All of my bills are on auto-pay and I maintain enough money in the account to make sure that water, heat and power, cell service are maintained in the house until it sells. And a reminder that the executor must maintain control and access to my phone – critical in this era of 2-step verification and account access.
It is good to leave a list of where every dollar is and how to access it, but it’s not OK to have one spouse not already knowing that on a daily basis. It’s just wrong to abdicate financial responsibility totally to a spouse. It’s unfair to them and to you. Handling money that is coming in and going out and being invested should be a team sport in every marriage in my opinion. Marriage isn’t a parent child relationship, it’s a partnership between equal adults.
This is great. So practical and clear!
We still receive all bills by USPS, so I figure someone else taking over home finance would be relatively easy. And, yes, my wife has durable POA and we linked our accounts.
With the exception of medical insurance, my mom gets all her bills and statements by mail, so I figure if I have to take over her finances, it would be as simple as collecting the mail. And, yes, we set up durable POA too for if that time comes.
There are benefits to old school paper checks. Just use wash proof ink and don’t mail them at night in a box likely to be fished.
Depending on your mom’s situation, you may want to consider changing the address on her bills so that they are delivered directly to you.
I have developed a healthy distrust of the USPS and am making every effort to not have any identity compromising information included in incoming or outgoing mail. I agree that it adds a layer of complexity to sorting through what is happening after a death.
As I’m just beginning this specific task, I really appreciate this article. It is just crazy how many website login credentials we have, with about 20 critical ones. I do most of the financial aspects while my wife handles the healthcare side. A few things to consider:
Once the “manual” is written, have the other person try to follow it while you’re still here to help. Hands-on learning to create a comfort level is far less emotional stress than having to do so after the fact. Great opportunity to understand how you can clarify items you may have understated due to your familiarity with them.
My wife also has her own roster of website info of all types. Be sure to incorporate it into the master list as needed.
I’m adding caution about being too quick to cancel accounts of any kind, and am including info about “the order of things”. Should both of us depart at the same time, our executors have access to some cash for expenses until financial accounts are updated. When I was co-executor for my moms estate (an unfortunate but helpful learning experience), I created a ledger to track all money movement including distributions to heirs. It helped make everything financial as transparent as possible, with updates sent to heirs and attorneys on a regular basis. My goal is to have this ready for their use.
The one aspect we’ve not decided upon is whether we should train our executors as well, in the event we pass at the same time, for example. On one hand, it makes absolute sense. On the other, does it open a can of worms we never intended? Money and trust can be odd partners.
I appreciate the cautions. I like the idea of setting up some trial runs of monthly chores.
Amen about not cancelling accounts too quickly. My documents have repeated warnings not to cancel my cell phone nor email accounts that are used for two factor authentication.
Great advice. I helped my mom with her finances after my dad passed, and she had no passwords and very little knowledge of assets or liabilities. A financial roadmap would have been incredibly helpful. And your tip about a regular review process is crucial. We review our accounts and instructions every six months, and I have also been surprised at how much things seem to change between reviews. The work we do now to review and maintain our financial instructions will be a tremendous blessing to those who remain after we pass.
Thanks for your helpful article.
I would suggest that the most valuable articles on HD are those that prompt readers to DO something. You have prompted me today.
Glad to help… I agree as I have also learned a lot from HD articles.
In our case we also keep a loose leaf binder with copies of bills and bank/investment statements such as credit card statements and property taxes with hand written advice on how and when paid and where any on line passwords are stored. Hopefully will help the survivor feel certain they are dealing with the correct account. We also keep a calendar of what gets paid when to hopefully avoid missing anything.
I feel compelled to say that as a single woman I am thankful to be fully engaged with my own finances, and am also thankful for the information on this site.
My mother recommended Jonathan Clements’ writing on finance to me back in the 1990s, and I’ve followed him since then.
I am thankful that my parents shared financial responsibilities and information with each other.
Funny enough- my mother’s investments did better than dad’s. This was mainly dur to her buy and hold strategy which was very different from my dad’s approach.
Good for a laugh just to continue keeping things in order as you mention, things change. As soon as you think you’ve dealt with some detail, something else takes its place…never stops.
Great article. I have a document similar to yours. Keeping it up to date is challenging as things change more than we realize. I give updated copies to my wife and children every year. What I need to do is sit down with them annually and review it with them to make sure they understand it. Putting things in writing exposes my limitations with the English language. They no doubt will have many questions the first time we review it.
Awesome list Howard, I have had something called a “Side letter of Instruction” (and this can be found online in several places including Morningstar). Your list looks pretty complete to me (thanks to your F-i-L). For password manager, I use KeePass which allows storing the data locally on your PC (this obviously means you need to back it up to a memory stick). For those comfortable using the cloud, there are several options.
Love this. Building my own first “MJ list” — known here as 4Nancy — led me to the wisdom of setting up and using a good password manager. That led me to the importance of protecting the password manager, plus key online accounts like email, cell service, bank and brokerage, with multi factor authentication.
I like all the creative names people have found for their lists. Maybe I was being too simplistic when I created my document: I called it “Start Here.”
You didn’t mention this, but I would encourage everyone to write their obituary and document instructions for their funeral and burial or cremation.
Excellent suggestion. This takes one more load off of loved ones at a difficult time.
Good suggestion. We have some prearrangments documented in our MJ list, but I had not thought of the obituary.
Such a terrific and helpful article. I went back to your previous one, and they are both a keeper. I thought I was pretty organized. You’ve just pointed out how much can be missed.
Thanks. I give credit to the organization skills of my father in law!
This is good advice. My wife and kids know that I have a manila envelope titled “When I Croak” with lots of relevant information. You’re right about the need to periodically update that information – – – and I need to do that. I also have an encrypted username/password file on my phone that can be accessed with either face recognition or a passcode. The passcode will be important information for those who survive me.
The whole idea of our digital footprint is something I have been thinking about. I have seen our MJ list migrate from references only to paper documents to today where many of the references are to online content. A recent article from Barrons raised the issue of how your digital life should be addressed in your estate planning. The concrete example is who has access to your crypto currency account… something that I don’t have and don’t plan to have. But, more broadly, if you die who is entitled to control your online “assets”….storage of pictures, videos, emails, etc. The article drew a distinction between authority to “manage” your digital accounts vs who has the “rights to the content.” Who can alter or close your social media accounts? Can they access your account without a password? Hint: you need to make sure your executor has access to your passwords. I plan to discuss this with our attorney at the next review of our trust documents.