Dear Monty: A tragedy plan is needed when your assets include real estate
By Richard Montgomery
Reader Question: My husband passed away unexpectedly very recently. I lost my best friend, and now I’m losing my sanity. He handled all our finances. We own income property and other assets but I don’t know where any documents are or how to find them. I asked for information many times, but he never gave it to me. I don’t know the password to his computer. Our children live out of the area and cannot help. My grief is turning into panic. We have regular bills to pay. What should I do? Can you help?
Monty’s Answer: I am sorry for your loss and your situation. Untimely death is not an occurrence that some people want to discuss, let alone create a plan to deal with it. When combining the reluctance to talk about sudden death with the idea of sharing family responsibilities, someone ends up with the finances, and the tragedy plan is put off. Here are some actions you can take to provide relief:
Steps to take immediately
Take the computer to a computer repair store, or a store that sells and repairs the brand you own. According to a store I checked with, they can break-in about 95% of the time. You may find a list of passwords, an address book, or accounts from which to gather information. If you have a joint credit card, who issued it?
Many people bank online (look in bookmarks and web history) and go paperless. Paperless means no statement in your mailbox. If they are not joint accounts, you may have to go to the bank in person with an original copy of the death certificate to obtain information. Bank statements will provide account numbers, payees and amounts paid to identify your vendors. Is there a safety deposit or post office box key on a keychain? Another good source of data is a title insurance company. These private companies insure the title to all property and have access to your property records. If you have an address, they can tell you which lender holds a mortgage.
If the first two action steps are fruitless, there is someone whom your husband knew that is aware of your finances. Most likely an accountant, an attorney, a commercial loan officer, or an individual working at a local income tax service. Recalling a name, a building or place that you can connect him with may help. Who prepared your annual income tax returns? Do you know any of his friends you can ask for leads? With some detective work, you will be able to determine the identity of his adviser, or advisers. The hardest part now is making decisions on your own. Seek two opinions on big decisions as they may have conflicting ideas.
The next steps
Assuming there is an accountant, you have two choices. The accountant can provide you with the information you need and a plan to determine exactly where your finances are today. Then, either the accountant can do the work, or advise you how to do the job. If you have no accountant engage one. Are the properties cash flowing? What are the mortgage balances? How much cash is available? The accountant can complete the task and make sure your affairs are in order in reasonably short order. All you will have to do is sign checks and make deposits. Free yourself to grieve without the burden of trying to learn and manage the finances for the short term. Remember to ask for a detailed cost estimate to get the books up-to-date and then a monthly cost to maintain them.
Do not allow history to repeat itself
To relieve your children from a similar experience keep a notebook file where they can find it. Include your will or trust documents. Type lists in a computer but print a hard copy for the notebook. List financial instruments, bank accounts, and insurance policies. Make a list of significant assets such as the house, cars, big equipment or toys, and other real estate. Make a list of vendors and computer passwords. What if you die and you are not at home? Do you want to be cremated or have your body shipped home? Ask your children to review your death certificate for errors before it is signed if you die away from home. Do you have a cemetery or mausoleum plot?
Make copies – never leave originals with advisers.
Do it now!
Richard Montgomery is the author of “House Money – An Insider’s Secrets to Saving Thousands When You Buy or Sell a Home.” He advocates industry reform and offers readers unbiased real estate advice. Follow him on Twitter @dearmonty, or find him at DearMonty.com