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A Widower's 4 Vital Money Lessons for Husbands

The sudden death of his wife taught one man how much he didn't know about the family's finances

By Richard Eisenberg

This blog post is for husbands in their 50s and 60s and I think it’s one of the most important ones I’ve written. The heartfelt advice from recent widower Terry O’Reilly might be the best holiday gift men and their families could receive.
Describing his efforts to piece together the family’s finances after his wife Donna’s unexpected death in July, Terry told me: “Over the course of the last five months, I realized what I didn’t know and what I had taken for granted.”
(MORE: The Money Perils Facing Widows)
Donna O'Reilly died unexpectedly of a rare, adverse reaction to a common prescription drug. She was 59. She and Terry were married for 38 years, after meeting in college at Notre Dame. Their two sons, Kevin and Christopher, live with Terry: Kevin is a wine merchant and Christopher studies physics in college.
Let me say at the outset that Terry is a colleague. He’s chief content officer at Twin Cities Public Television (TPT) in St. Paul, Minn., which runs the website where I work, Next Avenue.
As you might suspect from Terry’s title, he’s a sharp guy. Donna was an even match; she was on the board of the Children’s Hospital in St. Paul, responsible for its gift shop and annual fundraisers. “The people at the hospital tell me they’re only now figuring out all the stuff she did that they weren’t aware of,” says Terry.
The Couple’s Big, Inadvertent Money Mistake
Like many couples, Donna handled the day-to-day bills and household money management; Terry handled investing duties. “It’s been 38 years since I paid a bill,” he says. “We were really sort of independent people, complementary in many ways.”
But their split in financial responsibilities, which worked so well for them for decades, has inadvertently caused havoc for Terry since Donna died.
“As I ultimately came to find out, I knew where every dime of my savings and investment money was but didn’t have a clue about everything else,” Terry says.
(MORE: 9 Ways to Make Things Easier for Your Survivors)
He didn’t know the numbers of the couple’s checking or savings accounts, for example. “When I need money, I take the ATM card and go to the machine,” says Terry.
The Password Is…
Another problem he encountered: Donna had paid many of their bills online and Terry didn’t know her passwords for these accounts. “It sort of dawned on me a month or so in: ‘Wow, I bet we have some bills here that she’s getting online notices about and I have no idea.’ I found out it was true.”
Case in point: the O’Reillys’ cellphones. “She and the kids have a family account with three phones on it; I have a separate plan because I use my phone for work. Well, the family plan bill goes to Donna’s email address and she had a separate password for it that I didn’t know,” says Terry.
(MORE: 5 Steps to Creating Your Digital Estate Plan)
The Key to a Safe Deposit Box
Terry also got boxed in by the couple’s safe deposit box snafu.
“We had a safe deposit box, or should I say she had a safe deposit box,” he says. “When she signed up for it, she didn’t do that as a joint account. That wasn’t because she was trying to hide anything from me. I was traveling a lot and she just did it by herself one day.”
State laws vary regarding getting into a safe deposit box after a death, but Terry had to present a death certificate and an affidavit to the bank to get into the one with Donna’s name on it. (Donna never told Terry where she kept the safe deposit key, but he did some sleuthing around the house and found it.)
Terry’s chief takeaway from these experiences: “The last time I checked, human beings have a 100 percent mortality rate. So with that in mind, one of the greatest gifts you can give someone when they’re in a time of real emotional duress is the ability to deal with this stuff easily. In the great scheme of things, the money isn’t the most important thing. But the distraction of having to deal with it at a difficult time is an extraordinary imposition and absolutely unnecessary.”
4 Lessons for Husbands
Terry’s four lessons for husbands:
Lesson No. 1: Make a list of all accounts and passwords for banking, investing and bills. Be sure to include the names of the stocks, bonds and mutual funds in the investment accounts. Then, print a copy and either give it to your wife or tell her where she can find it.
Update this important document once a year. “Make it your New Year’s resolution,” says Terry.
Lesson No. 2: Share as much information about your family’s finances as possible with each other. “If I had died before Donna, she’d be in the same place I am. I am sure of it,” says Terry. “She wouldn’t have known what was in our investment accounts.”
Lesson No. 3: Register your safe deposit box in both of your names. Couples might even want to add at least one of their adult children’s names, just in case both spouses die together. Oh, and be sure each person knows where the box key is located.
Lesson No. 4. Be prepared for surprises. “Donna had at least one charge account I was totally unaware of,” says Terry. “And that’s OK, it wasn't much. But it's easy to fall into an emotional trap at a time when you're vulnerable and say: 'Oh my God, here's a debt I didn't know about!'"
What I Did After Our Talk
And here’s my personal takeaway from talking with Terry: Shortly after our interview, I updated “The List” that I had created for my wife, Liz, a year or so ago, which has information about our investments and insurance and my bank accounts and credit cards. Then I gave her a copy.
But I also did something I should’ve done earlier: I asked Liz to give me a list of her bank accounts and credit cards with all their passwords, so I'd have them if I needed them one day. She did.
Liz, our two sons and I want to say: Thank you, Terry.

Photograph of Richard Eisenberg
Richard Eisenberg is the former Senior Web Editor of the Money & Security and Work & Purpose channels of Next Avenue and former Managing Editor for the site. He is the author of "How to Avoid a Mid-Life Financial Crisis" and has been a personal finance editor at Money, Yahoo, Good Housekeeping, and CBS MoneyWatch. Read More
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