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Helping Clients Cope with Sudden Loss

Three years ago, my mother-in-law’s sister died. My husband, five kids and I were driving back from the funeral when we received a call. “Pat (my mother-in-law) is being rushed to the hospital. I don’t know what is going on, but they were giving her chest compressions and the ambulance just left.” My heart sank. This couldn’t be happening. I didn’t believe it. I just couldn’t believe it. I just saw her a few hours earlier at the funeral and she was happy and looked great. She seemed so healthy.

Pat had an unexpected heart attack. She was only 75, had no apparent health problems, and didn’t take any medications. It was my father-in-law, Jim, that we expected would be the first to leave us, and not for a long time. He was two years older than Pat and had recovered from a minor stroke, although it affected his vision.

We all drove to the hospital, and despite our prayers, she was gone before the ambulance pulled out of the driveway. We were all in a state of shock. What were we going to do? Pat was the matriarch of the family. She was the one who insisted on having the rest of us over for holidays and birthdays. She was the glue that bonded my husband’s side of the family together.

This Changes Everything

I started to think about how everything would change for Jim. Pat drove him everywhere. Jim couldn’t do it anymore because of his vision.  They lived on a farm in the country. Over the next several days, we considered what kind of changes he would go through. How would he handle being alone? Would he feel secluded not being able to drive and socialize with his friends? Would he even want to go back home? What if something happened and there was no one there to help him?

The Funeral

Getting through the funeral was a challenge. Emotions were high. Jim was devastated. He spent the next few days calling friend after friend and discussing what happened. It seemed to be therapeutic for him to talk it out. My husband and his siblings weren’t doing so well. No one expected to have to plan their mother’s funeral. There were many decisions to make. Who was going to preside over the mass? How were we going to have the visitation? What kind of a casket would she want? Where would we have the reception? Would there be a brunch afterwards? What did we want the announcement to say? What kind of flowers did she want?

Planning for the Inevitable

As a financial planner, I have found that people avoid the topic of death because it is uncomfortable. I wished we had those conversations so that we could have been more prepared. As a financial planner, there are many practical things to consider, such as:

  • What life insurance policies were in place and where can the surviving spouse find them? (I imagine that heirs are frequently unaware of some of these policies so they may not collect the benefits they are entitled to.)
  • If the spouse who passed away was more financially savvy, who can the surviving spouse turn to for help with financial matter? (Oftentimes clients say they hire me so that their spouse has someone to go to if anything should happen.)
  • Where are the investments and do you have records of the cost basis information?
  • Where is the will and when was it last updated? (It should be reviewed should there be a major change in a client’s life, or every five years as a precaution.)
  • Are there assets in a trust or is the intention to fund a trust after the passing of one spouse?
  • Are beneficiaries updated on all accounts, including 401(k)s, 403(b)s, IRAs, brokerage accounts, bank accounts, etc.?
  • If there are minor children, what happens should both parents die?
  • Is real estate held individually or jointly? Does it need to be structured to bypass probate? (Laws vary by state.)
  • Do medical and financial power of attorney documents need to be updated?
  • Has your client decided to do funeral planning, and if so, where are those documents located?
  • If one spouse was in charge of the finances, does the other spouse have the tools and information they need, if they were less involved?
  • Do both spouses have access to each other’s retirement plans and account information?
  • Does someone have access to important passwords, such as Facebook, which would allow family members to shut those websites off if they didn’t want reminders popping up anymore?

Death Over Dinner

Conversations about death might feel taboo, but we would have felt more at peace had we known we were making choices that Pat would have liked. If you are interested in how to start these conversations with the most important people in your life, this website can help: https://deathoverdinner.org/ 

Encourage Planning With Your Clients

Through this experience, the financial firm where I work recognized that many of our clients are also ill prepared. We decided to offer our clients Everplans, an online organizer. It allows clients to securely secure the important documents that should be reviewed if anything were to happen to them. It also assigns people (called deputies) to have access to the information should anything happen. Access isn’t provided until needed so our clients can keep their information private until the time comes.

We decided to purchase a firm level subscription so that our clients (and prospective clients) could use it to organize their lives. In addition to asking some of the important questions above, it also encourages clients to write letters to their loved ones for when they are no longer around. We feel that offering this to our clients adds a lot of value to their lives and helps them organize everything from finances to funeral planning.

Where We Are Now

In the year that followed Pat’s death, my children expressed some fears about losing either my husband or me. Jim went back home and said that he felt Pat’s presence when he was there. This experience has given me a renewed focus on life.

I have had more conversations with my parents about what their last wishes are. I have expressed some of my wishes to my husband should anything happen to me. But most importantly, I have a renewed energy and appreciation for the biggest gift that we each get … the gift of time and our own lives. I hope to leave this world a better place for having been in it.

Written by Monica Dwyer, CFP®, CDFA®