Part I:  The Problem

In the years I have been doing estate planning, I have observed with almost every couple that one of them has taken the lead with paying the bills, handling bank and utility accounts and, in general, managing the family’s financial, legal, accounting and other needs and services.  I’ll refer to that person as the “Family CEO”.  The Family CEO knows all of the important facts, account numbers, payment due dates, how payments are set up, who the professional advisors are, and all of the other information necessary to manage the family business.  The other “what me worry” spouse happily allows the Family CEO to perform these functions, and trusts that all will be well.  The problems occur when the Family CEO dies first, leaving the surviving spouse to pick up the pieces and figure out how to get all of these family administrative chores done without access to the necessary information, much of which died with the Family CEO.

Think of the things that will need to be done after the first spouse dies.  For instance, the survivor will be asking himself or herself:

  • How did the Family CEO pay the bills?  Are they set up to pay automatically through bill pay, by automatic withdrawal from a bank account, or have they been paid in the past by check?  How do I figure this out?
  • Do I have access to the bank account from which the expenses are being paid? If not, how do I get access?
  • Where are the passwords and usernames for the accounts that are managed and/or paid online?
  • Why won’t the utility company talk to me about my gas or power bill?  How do I get my name on the account so that I can talk to them myself?
  • Who has prepared our tax returns in the past and who will help me with it this year?
  • I don’t know the people who provided the Family CEO with legal and financial advice because I never met them or got involved with them.  How do I find people I can trust to help me with those things?
  • I need to change the title to the family vehicle to my name, but I can’t find the registration or inspection forms. Where are they?

I could go on and on.  I know because I have had the opportunity to watch my father go through this exercise during the past couple of months since my mom passed away unexpectedly in October.  Mom didn’t intentionally keep this information from my dad, and my dad didn’t intentionally avoid learning it.  Everything was working well for them and they didn’t really think they needed to do anything differently.  They had a fine estate plan in place that will handle all of the legal and technical chores, but those legal documents don’t help with these practical every day chores that my dad now faces.

This experience has taught me how important it is to teach my clients to systematically and intentionally prepare for the loss of the Family CEO so that this already difficult time for the survivor may be made less painful.  I think the challenge to me in the teaching my clients will be to instill in them a sense of urgency about addressing these issues because no one wants to do anything until it feels urgent, and when it really and truly is urgent, it’s generally already too late.  That’s what happened with my mom.

In Part II, I’ll share some ideas about what you should do to help prepare yourself and your family to handle the business of life after the Family CEO dies.