The basic things a spouse or your heirs need to be able to know about and find, and what they don't need to know.
Before every long trip I took for decades, I used to sit my wife down for “the talk,” the never-pleasant topic of “Do you know what to do if something happens and I don’t come home?”
As much as she appreciated knowing where to find ways to access all of our investments and records, she never enjoyed those chats.
As I prepared to travel abroad again recently, I realized that I needed to have a different chat, this time with my children. A divorce several years back means that I had to have a talk that my kids really would have preferred to avoid, the same as my now ex-wife back in the day.
Yet judging from some recent study data from Fidelity Investments, couples and families need to have these talks to remove financial stresses and more.
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The Fidelity research showed that many married couples have a failure to communicate when it comes to their finances. That runs from disagreeing on how much to save to when to retire, from how to use debt to what kinds of investments to buy.
“Talks about money always are difficult,” said Alexandra Taussig, Fidelity’s senior vice president of lifetime client engagement, “but a great place to start them is the basics, all of the things around money.”
That applies whether you are talking with a spouse or with adult children.
Putting together the information to share with my children was interesting; there was no discussion of amounts of money (which would have been appropriate with a spouse but is not yet an issue for my 20-something daughters), just where to find a list of accounts and passwords, details on how accounts are structured, who are beneficiaries and more.
My children have long known that there is a file in my cabinet labeled “In the Highly Likely Event of My Death” that includes copies of my will, health-care proxy and more. They did not know that it also includes a list of my accounts, and a lot of other personal information that they don’t really need to worry about unless I wind up suffering a worst-case scenario.
Since I had a heart attack in 2010, they know there will always be some risk, which makes it harder for them to discuss, but they bucked up and we were able to get it done.
The benefit of simply making the list was that it forced me to make sure my beneficiary choices were up to date and didn’t default to my (now ex) wife as they would have a few years ago.
Along with updating beneficiaries, compiling the list of accounts got me to thinking of ways to improve my portfolio.
No one wants to leave their heirs a mess, and yet a lifetime of accounts can be messy and difficult. There are a handful of shares in a spinoff here, some loose shares from an old account there, retirement plans that could be consolidated, old accounts that have been forgotten, all things that need to be cleaned up to make sure that real money doesn’t get frittered away.
(Interestingly, in doing the prep work and looking up old account information, I found old savings accounts that belonged to my children which they had forgotten about; they may have hated the conversation, but they loved receiving a windfall from it.)
Money talks are best when done without emotion.
During my married days, when my wife grumbled about “the talk,” her friends suggested that she was lucky because they would have been lost in a catastrophic situation
There’s nothing about that talk that is fun, but when I had the heart attack and knew that my family would know where everything is, how they were protected, who to contact and what to do, it gave me great peace of mind.
Facing my own mortality, I would not have wanted to be thinking “Oh, man, I knew I should have updated my health-care proxy.”
The basic things a spouse or your heirs need to be able to find includes: the last two years of tax returns, marriage and birth certificates, insurance policies, wills and health-care proxies. Accounts, passwords and other data are crucial too, although storing it in a virtual safe might make some sense to avoid potential frauds.
The idea here is not to give every detail, but rather to let your loved ones know where they would get all of those details if they needed to. For my children, it was an invitation to discuss investments — their investments more than mine — in the hope that enough sinks in so that they can push through any sort of disaster.
Obviously, I’d like to avoid that kind of big trouble, but not having up-to-date communications with your potential survivors is not going to extend your life if/when your number is up. You can’t be thinking that where there is a will, there is a dead person; think instead of how you want to make sure your heirs get their due and that your family controls its assets and your legacy.
Just as important for parents who worry that kids will want the details of their accounts and somehow become money-hungry, my children know almost nothing more about my finances than they did before the talk. What they know is whom they could call, where they would go to get the information, whom they would trust and where they would find my wishes.
I hope they never need that information, but it will be a blessing for them if there is ever a time of need.
So use your next vacation, or birthday, or the fact that you read this column as an excuse to launch a discussion with your loved ones. Give them information you are comfortable sharing, that will reduce their frustration, anger (and costs) if you don’t give them a road map to your accounts, policies and documents.
“The more things are communicated, the less potential for fighting and misunderstandings,” Taussig said. “And you may not like having these conversations, but the people we talk to say they feel so much better when they are done.”