5 Tips I Wish I’d Known When the Unthinkable Happened

By Jackie Heater

At Gertsema Wealth Advisors, we often talk about retirement planning “what-ifs.” The death of a spouse is an especially difficult “what-if” scenario to discuss. Many people never plan for this, and while you’re never ready for it, there are a few preparations that can help smooth this difficult path.

On Saturday, July 27, 2019, what started out as a normal day off turned into a nightmare when my husband, Bob, passed away unexpectedly. As I’ve navigated through the fog of grief and disbelief, I’ve learned some very important things along the way that I want to share. Let’s look at five end-of-life preparation tips to help equip you for the unthinkable.


Tip 1 – End-of-Life Care Discussions

Talk to your spouse or family about those end of life decisions. It’s not easy, but if you know what their wishes are you don’t second guess your decisions.

One of the first decisions I had to make was at the hospital. They’d kept Bob alive long enough to get him there but what would his quality of life be? He’d always told me he never wanted to be a burden or kept alive in a vegetative state. Even though it was hard to let him go, I knew what his wishes were and didn’t give it a second thought when the doctor asked me what I wanted to do.

The second decision was organ donation. Since he’d been a diabetic for over 40 years and had some other health issues, he never thought his organs would be good for donation, but I learned that we could donate the cornea, tissue, bone and skin. He was a giving person, so the decision was easy because I knew what he wanted to do.

Drafting an Advanced Directive or Durable Power of Attorney for Healthcare will give you a written record and reference for these discussions.


Tip 2 – Funeral Arrangements

Pre-arrange your funeral. You will lock in the price and your family won’t have to make decisions at the worst time of their lives and worry about how it’s going to be paid for. If you aren’t comfortable pre-arranging, at least talk about it and write down the things you want or don’t want. Something as simple as picking the music you want them to play at the service can be a huge decision.

I had an advantage in this area because my husband worked for a local funeral home as a family needs counselor for several years, so I was comfortable with the funeral home. The employees there were like family and through the years my husband and I had talked about things we wanted and didn’t want at our service when the time came.

Grief-stricken families who don’t know what their loved one wants tend to overspend on a funeral service. Because of my previous conversations with Bob, making the arrangements wasn’t as difficult as it could have been.


Tip 3 – Finances are a Team Effort

Once you’ve navigated through the funeral and you start trying to find your new normal you must navigate through the finances, bills, life insurance, car titles, deeds to your property, bank accounts, investment accounts, and various other things. I’ve been fortunate in this respect as well, I paid all our household bills and managed our bank account.

In my business I’ve helped our clients navigate the re-registration process on their accounts after someone passes away, but if the spouse that passes is the one that managed their finances the surviving spouse is lost and overwhelmed in the process.

Make sure you are both involved in your finances, even if one is more involved than the other, be sure you both know what bills you have, the location of your bank accounts and investment accounts. When it’s time for that portfolio review with your advisor, make sure you both attend so that everyone is on the same page.


Tip 4 – Name Beneficiaries

There are going to be some bumps in the road as you navigate through this process. Even the most organized person can make a mistake. Mine came when I found out that my husband had failed to put a beneficiary on the supplemental life insurance that his company had offered. Making sure we had beneficiaries on our life insurance and other investments was something we always talked about.

At first, I was irritated that he was so careless, especially since I knew he was always worried about taking care of me if something happened to him. Since he’d been a diabetic since age 16 life insurance wasn’t easy for him to purchase, so he always took advantage of anything he was able to get.

I’m now having to navigate through the estate and probate process but I’m ok with it, after a few days reflecting on it I know he didn’t do it on purpose, my best guess is at the time he needed to add the beneficiary he wasn’t feeling well or something and just forgot. It happens.

Make sure you have current beneficiaries on all your bank accounts, investments, IRAs, 401(k), life insurance and other accounts. You don’t want your hard-earned nest egg to be frozen for 6-9 months and eaten up by probate taxes, court costs and legal fees.


Tip 5 – Passwords and PINS

Make sure you have the passwords written down and put in a secure location that you and your spouse know about. The surviving spouse is going to need access to your email and social media accounts if for nothing else to eventually shut them down.

Also, most cell phones these days automatically require you to have a PIN to unlock your phone and most now have a finger or thumbprint option as well. Make sure your spouse knows your PIN! My husband’s phone was locked, I thought I knew his PIN but every combination I tried didn’t work.

The day he died I desperately needed phone numbers for his boss and co-workers to tell them what happened. Fortunately, I had at least one co-worker’s phone number I could contact. Bob’s phone also carried pictures and videos he had of our kids and grandkids. I managed to find a techy with software that was able to open it and transfer the pictures and videos to a disc so I have them now, but for a while, I was heartbroken that I might lose them.

Keep passwords, PINS and other magical tech codes in a secure place but be sure you know where they are in case something happens. Every online account we have whether it’s your bank or investment account or accounts for online ordering is somehow tied to your email and/or your cell phone, so it’s important to be able to access that if necessary.


Click here to download our free guide “Estate Planning: Understanding Wills and Trusts” on how to prepare for your legacy


Your Two New Best Friends

If the unthinkable happens there are two resources that will become your best friends. First, the funeral home staff, especially the funeral director or family service counselor. They are going to hold your hand through those horrible first days and even longer. Many have grief counselors on staff or offer support groups. At the very least, they have information and can guide you to those services if you need them. Many people don’t realize they can offer a lot of things to help you as you move beyond the funeral.

Second, your financial advisor and their staff. They will help you navigate through the finances, collaborate with your attorney for estate issues and your CPA for tax issues.

A Plan You Will Use One Day (No Question)

When my husband was working for the funeral home, he had a couple who’d come to pre-arrange their funeral services. One spouse was ready to do it and the other was having a problem discussing it. This is what he told them, “We all purchase homeowners insurance, we wouldn’t consider not having it in case there was a fire or other disaster and yet statistically the odds are very low that you will ever use it but we still pay the premium every year. If you purchase this pre-need policy or at minimum write down your end of life wishes, I can guarantee you are going to use it someday.”

No one likes to talk about or think about losing their spouse or loved one, but here are some end-of-life preparations we can do ahead of time to make it easier on your surviving spouse or family if the unthinkable happens. I plan on pre-arranging my funeral so that my children and grandchildren don’t have to make those decisions and have the financial burden when the time comes.

Gertsema Wealth Advisors believes there is more to growing your hard-earned nest egg than just choosing investments. There is also financial planning, managing risk, collaborating with your CPA and attorney and talking about the “What If’s.” Let’s talk about a comprehensive plan that can take care of you, your family and your legacy.


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