As a retired financial services professional, and primary breadwinner, I have strong feelings about the importance of making sure my spouse is well informed about all aspects of our financial and legal lives. As a survivor of both the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and 9/11, that message resonates especially strongly with me.
In the wake of the 1993 WTC bombing, my wife, Sandy, and I decided that we needed to have a document that detailed all our bank, brokerage, insurance and legal details. I thought about how life is fleeting and recognized the responsibility I had to care for own my family even after my death.
Statistically, wives outlive husbands — and I wanted to make sure my wife and family had a ready guide and roadmap to navigate finances. Thus began a document I prepared titled “Where Everything Is,” which I update semi-annually.
Less than a decade later, when the World Trade Center collapsed, 1,609 women and men lost a spouse or partner. Tragically, 3,051 children also lost a mom or dad. These figures come from New York Magazine.
Shortly after 9/11, I had a conversation with a senior executive for an insurance company that had lost more than 300 employees in the collapse of the North Tower. To provide aid to affected families, the company invited them to a New York City hotel where they set up counseling sessions and support services.
This executive noted that a chief worry among the survivors was that many of the wives had not been involved in any aspect of their family’s finances. He further shared that many did not even know where the checkbook was kept or what bank or brokerage accounts they shared with their now missing/deceased spouse. They were scared, alone and financially at sea.
Heartbreaking and Preventable
As an investment professional, like many of you, I have seen too many situations where a husband dies and the wife is lost concerning financial matters. It’s heartbreaking, in part, because it could have easily been prevented had the husband taken the time and steps to involve his wife.
I encourage you to speak candidly to your clients who have excluded their spouses from meetings, either intentionally or because the spouse was busy or wasn’t interested in attending. It is prudent for the client and spouse to attend planning meetings — and valuable to the longevity of your practice.
While I was a branch manager at TD Ameritrade, I would often sit in on client meetings with the broker and a third-party manager. Two of those meetings are particularly memorable. One, because the husband was doing a masterful job caring for his wife, both financially and emotionally. The other because the daughter of a man suffering from early dementia did the same for her mother.
The Gift of a Worry-Free Financial Life
In the first meeting, the broker and advisor were sitting with the husband and wife. The client was a retiring accountant and had done well financially. Money was not going to be an issue for the surviving spouse. I listened carefully and smiled as the husband made sure his wife knew that the broker and advisor worked for her as well. Believe me, the advisor and broker got the message. The client also spoke to the advisor in a firm tone (with a sense of humor) to model for his wife how she could communicate with the advisor.
I have a lot of respect for that gentleman. I could see what he was giving his wife: The gift of a worry-free financial life.
Turning Over the Reins
The second notable client meeting involved an ailing husband, frightened wife and stalwart daughter. The purpose of this and subsequent meetings was to establish an advisory relationship and a transition plan as the husband/father’s condition rapidly deteriorated.
The third-party advisor and the broker knew that the window of opportunity to help this family was short, so they quickly but carefully laid out a plan. The husband knew he was not going to be able to be involved much longer and did the right thing by his wife and daughter by turning over the reins of the family finances to the daughter. Had the daughter not been involved, the wife would likely be overwhelmed with trying to comprehend a sophisticated financial situation without foreknowledge or a plan.
Several months later, the husband sadly passed away. Shortly after his death, the daughter and her mother came by the branch to meet with the advisor and the broker. It was one of the most moving meetings I can recall in a long career. The family greeted our staff, the broker and the advisor with tears and warm hugs. It was an oddly joyous occasion. I knew at that moment that our efforts to have the husband involve his wife and daughter had a huge positive impact. I also knew that the husband would have been very pleased to see how well his family was doing.
An Expanded Approach
As the twentieth anniversary of 9/11 is upon us, I am reminded that a lot of what happens in life is beyond our control. Since creating the initial “Where Everything Is” document, I have expanded my approach. The following are concrete steps I’ve taken to help my family. I urge you to involve your spouse and family and urge your clients to do something similar.
- My wife has current contact info and website access for all banking, brokerage, legal and insurance providers. Critically, she has met with each of these individuals. So, when I pass, she will not be meeting with strangers.
- I maintain a list (encrypted) of current website login details for all financial and insurance matters.
- I maintain a large binder that includes key documents and contact info, including insurance policies, estate planning documents, recent bank and brokerage account statements, etc.
- Other important documents are kept in a file cabinet, well labeled and updated as necessary. My wife and a daughter have been briefed on the contents.
- I keep all important documents in a safe, accessible place. I recently moved all documents to a higher floor in the house as a result of recent severe local flooding.
Please speak to your clients about the complexity of our financial lives and encourage them to help those they love by involving them in the process.
Greg Murphy is a retired financial services employee. He started his career as an account executive with E.F. Hutton where he met his wife, Sandy. Since then, Greg has occupied several positions in retail brokerage and investment management with Dean Witter and Morgan Stanley. He recently finished his career with a 12-year stint as a branch manager with TD Ameritrade.