If something tragic were to happen to you, would your survivors be able to manage the family finances without you? Locate all your important legal documents and insurance policies? Identify and contact your team of trusted professionals (e.g., attorney, financial planner)?
That's the question Bob Hassmiller asked himself more than a decade ago. He was particularly concerned that his wife, Sue, wouldn't be taken care of if he passed away. So he wrote her a letter, called "A Letter From Your Dead Husband," that he updated every year. If something happened to him, Sue would know to open the letter for detailed instructions about where to find everything she needed.
Bob shared the principles of his letter on the discussion boards of The Motley Fool's Rule Your Retirement service, which struck a chord with his fellow members. He later agreed to write an article about his letter, with the help of Sue and fellow Rule Your Retirement subscriber Amy Eddy (who, like Bob, handles most of the money management in her family).
Tragically, Bob passed away last week. The world lost a great man -- a Purple Heart recipient from the Vietnam War, a successful CEO, a decades-long Red Cross volunteer, and a self-taught financial planner who was always eager to help fellow Fools on the discussion boards. And Bob's family has lost a loving husband, father, and grandfather. But we trust that this very difficult time will be made somewhat easier due to Bob's careful, thoughtful planning.
We know Bob would be disappointed if we didn't take this opportunity to remind you that unforeseen, tragic events do happen. Although they can't always be prevented, we can be prepared -- and in doing so make things much easier on the people we love. So to honor Bob's contributions to Fooldom and to pass along his legacy of thoughtful planning, we're publishing his instructions for creating a letter that contains all the information your relatives need to know to carry on financially.
"A Letter From Your Dead Husband"
During a long hike in Tucson in 2005, I (Bob here) began thinking about what my wife would need after I die. For five hours, my wife and I walked and talked. I related wills, insurance, accounts, allocations, safe withdrawal rates, and more. It was a delightful hike -- and afterward, my wife couldn't recall a thing we'd discussed. She just wasn't interested.
But the topic was -- and is -- important to me. My father, my hero, was a lawyer who died with no will and no instructions. His lack of foresight effectively doomed my surviving mother, and she died less than a year later.
So I decided to write things down for my wife. Years ago, I shared my "Letter From Your Dead Husband" on our Rule Your Retirement discussion boards. This has been a dynamic letter, and there have been many changes. Special thanks to my RYR cyber-friends for your suggestions -- especially Amy Eddy, who shared her own letter with me this year. Amy is younger than I am, and I realized that her age led her to include many things I had forgotten to put in my own letter. Her letter is excellent, and I've included much of it here.
Before we go over the topics you should include in your letter, note that none of us working on this is a lawyer. Also keep in mind that federal and state laws often differ. Please use this as a basic document -- but consult your own laywers and do your own research.
Have an introduction
Although it may seem self-explanatory, your letter should describe why this is important and meaningful, both for you and whomever you leave behind. I start my letter with the following:
"I want you to know that I've enjoyed every minute that I've been able to think about our future together as I've done this financial planning. But if you're opening this letter, something has happened. That makes this planning all the more important, and please know that you are well cared for."
This is a good place to list the contact info for those who are part of your "financial team" (attorney, financial planner, executor, etc.). For example: "Our attorney, XXX, is with the law firm of XXX, and her number is XXX. She is expensive, so use her sparingly."
Or, in some cases: "Seek advice from XXX and XXX. They will help you. Do not seek financial advice from XXX, although he will give it. He's a good friend but not for this kind of advice."
You should also include the locations of your personal documents (Quicken files, utility bills, tax returns, etc.), as well as the locations of any legal documents and the names of anyone else who has copies. Don't forget to include access instructions for safes, alarms, and websites.
You can also give your loved ones tips on actions they should take. Include anything you think will be helpful that they might overlook. For example: "Get multiple copies of my death certificate and keep them handy. Eventually, you'll need to show official copies of this."
Or: "File form XXX with my employer to officially notify them of my death so you can continue with health insurance benefits."
Break down your accounts
List all the accounts through which your money passes. Leave no account unidentified! Be sure to note what is and isn't automatically paid. You can also include a section for recurring and automatic payment accounts that your spouse may wish to stop -- things such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, home loans, insurance, and others. Some types of accounts to consider include savings, checking, money market, CDs, brokerage accounts, retirement accounts (401(k), IRA, Roth IRA), and FSAs (health and dependent care).
Feel free to include some parting advice, but try not to get too complicated. Try something like: "Instruct XXX to move XXX amount of dollars from our XXX brokerage account to your checking account. I don't want you to worry about having money available."
Or even: "Honey, the electric bill does not pay itself; you need to go online to XXX and pay it each month."
List out your assets
Use this section to list your assets. No, you don't need to include your collection of Star Trek: The Next Generation DVDs, but anything that has real value and/or is insured should be included. (It's possible that your Star Trek memorabilia may actually fall into this category -- those Beanie Babies, not so much.) The last thing you'd want is for your spouse or kids to get rid of something of value because they don't know what it is.
Some assets to consider are real estate, personal property (autos, motorcycles, jewelry, artwork, etc.), stock or bond certificates held outside brokerage accounts, what's owed you (money, goods, or services), business interests, Social Security income, and pension income.
Speaking of Social Security, your spouse should investigate "stepping up" to survivor benefits based on your record, if appropriate.
Explain your liabilities
List all the debt or other liabilities in this section. Be sure to identify debts held in your name alone separately from what is held jointly by you and another person (spouse, business partner, etc.).
Liabilities to consider are credit card accounts, home equity loans or lines of credit, student loans, personal loans, mortgages, auto loans, business loans, and money, goods, or services you owe someone.
Run through your insurance
This is another self-explanatory category, but people sometimes forget how many different types of insurance they have. If you have minor children, it is wise to review your insurance needs about every three years. And be sure to list the term/renewal date of any insurance.
Some insurances to consider are life, health, disability, vehicle, home or renters, and property (you know, for Aunt Gertrude's rubies that nobody wants to wear).
Collect your legal documents
Address the locations of all your legal or other important documents, as well as who has hard copies.
Legal documents you should/may have are a will, a living will, instructions for final arrangements, trusts or a living trust, power of attorney, medical power of attorney or an advance directive, financial power of attorney, and account names and locations of any passwords.
You can also use this section to address the general disposition of your assets when you die. You don't want it to rehash your will, but you do want to explain what happens to your assets. For example: "If I die, you basically get everything. The tax code is somewhat complicated ... but the attorney will walk you through it."
And: "Our favorite charities were XX and YY. I've directed that 10% of my assets go to those organizations. After that, you get almost everything, although XXX gets XXX in a trust for college and YYY gets my golf clubs."
If you have children not yet of legal age or other dependents, it is important that you list your wishes for legal guardianship and perhaps include options. In my case, we set up a mother-in-law trust to care for my wife's mother, should she still be alive. You'll also want to address what will happen to any assets that minor children will inherit.
Amy notes the following to her husband: "If I were to die, you may want to rethink custody for the kids. Right now, our kids go to my sister if we both die. If you don't feel comfortable with this once I pass, that's OK. Just be sure that whoever you pick will allow my family visitation rights (please put this in your will)."
Share your financial roadmap
Use this section to provide a summary of your existing finances. You want to give your spouse a general overview of how your finances are set up, what your short- and long-term goals are, and how those may change once you're gone. Along with a net-worth summary and a list of all our investments, I give my wife the following advice:
"We've developed a trusted financial advisor in Melanie of XXX service. Her telephone number is XXX. I have allowed our investments to become more complicated but suggest that you follow Melanie's advice on what to do."
And: "We have a condo out of town. Call XXX at XXX and sell it. In her office, XXX is managing it."
Plan for your spouse's future, and end with love
Your will can dictate the disbursement items or money that you feel strongly about. But many people choose to leave everything in bulk to a spouse or other loved one, giving them the flexibility to spend as they see fit. So make your general wishes known, and include any special instructions. I tell my wife the following:
"I'll roll over in the grave if you have an expensive funeral [for me]. I'd prefer to be cremated, but do what you need to do. My life is my gravestone."
And: "I want you to be happy, but if you remarry, I also want you to sign a prenuptial agreement to safeguard your finances. XXX can help you."
Amy includes this in her letter: "I would prefer if there is any of my life insurance money left after you have raised our kids, that you give it to them when you think they are ready. It is part of my legacy to them, and I would like it to stay in our family even though you all may be part of a newer, bigger family. I know that we haven't always agreed upon cash gifts to adult children, but I really feel strongly about this and know you will have raised them to be hard-working adults."
Amy and I end our letters with a statement of love. Your completing this letter speaks of all the wonderful times you've planned for your future. The document should require only minimal "tweaking" in the future, though it should be a yearly reminder to you and your spouse that financial planning, too, is a sign of your love.
A National Red Cross Award will be created in Bob's name to recognize excellence in disaster service. To contribute:
American Red Cross of New Jersey
Bob Hassmiller Memorial Fund
707 Alexander Road
Princeton, NJ 08540