Let's face it...families have to delegate responsibilities to survive. Life is busy, chaotic, and we rely on our significant other to fill important roles in our family's operation. But what happens if one of us is unavailable? Gone? One of the most complicated roles for a surviving spouse to step into is the role of managing household financial matters. Especially if that person does not have a firm grasp on HOW to step in or WHERE to find the information necessary to keep things moving forward.
While it may seem overwhelming to create a contingency plan for this inevitable event, it is important. There are a few simple steps to make sure both spouses are on the same page and know where and how to find the resources necessary to ease the eventual transition.
Step #1 - Account Aggregation Tools
In today's world, there are a number of online tools that allow you to electronically connect accounts from various institutions to give a real-time snapshot of your entire family financial picture in one place.
Clients of our firm, for instance, are given online access to a financial planning software tool called RightCapital. Within the data aggregation portal of this software, investment accounts, bank accounts, mortgage loans, credit cards, company-sponsored 401(k) accounts, etc. can be linked electronically to provide real time account balances all in one place. Since the first statement we typically hear from the delegating spouse is "I wouldn't know where to begin if something happened to my partner", this aggregation portal gives a consolidated look at ALL accounts, loans, insurance coverages, and other important financial details in one location. With one simple login, the surviving spouse can get a real-time snapshot of everything together.
Additionally, RightCapital contains a "Vault", or online secure document storage location to upload important family documents such as birth certificates, wills and trust documents, insurance contracts, and anything else you might think would be of value. Taking the time on the front end to bundle your family's financial affairs in a secure account aggregation tool is the first step to ensuring a smooth transition down the road.
If you're not a client of our firm, you may need to use two separate tech tools to accomplish this. Tools such as Personal Capital and Mint.com (or numerous others) can serve as an aggregation portal while secure document storage can be handled by Google Drive or Dropbox or some other type of cloud-based storage technology.
Step #2 - Password Sharing
The next step after understanding what the total financial picture looks like is often accessing these individual accounts and websites. Since aggregation tools are non-transactional, it is necessary to login to the institutions directly to alter accounts or make changes.
There are several password sharing tools available, but my current favorite is LastPass. LastPass allows you to store your passwords in one location with one, uber-secure master password. Both spouses should have their own LastPass account, and then each individual institution's password can be shared with one another's master account. This way, anytime passwords at individual institutions need to be updated, the update will automatically share with the potential surviving spouse. This solves the headache of trying to keep track of multiple passwords and saves the surviving spouse the headache of trying to reset multiple passwords to access family financial information in a time of need.
Step #3 - Financial Professional Correspondence
Too often I hear one spouse tell me their partner is overwhelmed or stressed out by financial discussions and prefers to disengage from having these discussions. I understand. These discussions can feel very personal and sometimes energy-draining. This does not mean that complete disengagement is a good idea. In an inevitable time of need, simply having some sort of a relationship with the professional(s) that helped your family get to the point in life you are at, is incredibly important.
We think it's BEST when both spouses are involved in all planning discussions, but that doesn't mean this is the only way to make things work. If one spouse prefers to stay out of the family financial discussions, I typically recommend a couple suggestions.
First, try to commit to a social engagement such as both of you grabbing lunch together with your financial professionals (CPA, Financial Planner, Estate Planning Attorney) and just keep conversations to a social level. By doing this, both spouses build trust and comfort and can more easily help the surviving spouse feel calm in the face of life's challenges.
Secondly, have both spouses commit to one annual meeting at the very least to update goals, objectives, and look over the account aggregation tool so that both spouses know what is where and get a quick look together at how things are working. This doesn't have to be granular in nature. It can be a big picture overview to reinforce a sense of financial control for both spouses.
Thanks to technological enhancements, it really doesn't take much effort to tie together a financial picture for a non-financially minded spouse. Similar to getting an estate plan in place, procrastination is usually the biggest hurdle. This is a major pain point for most families we work with, but it can be overcome with a little effort and buy-in from both parties. While seldom URGENT, it is incredibly IMPORTANT. We all love our families and our spouse and making the transition to family financial manager as seamless as possible is a step everyone should take.