A lifelong friend of mine recently passed away, and it was a sudden and totally unexpected death. As a financial advisor, I deal with the possibility of death all the time. In the hundreds of plans I have built with clients, if a spouse or dependent was in the picture, I almost always considered the financial impact of a death, particularly if the client was young. Still, when my friend passed away, it came as a shock.


Part of the reason it was a shock was that although I intellectually understood such a thing was possible, I also knew it was highly unlikely. And as we are wont to do, on an emotional level, I redefined highly unlikely as “something that won’t happen to me or those I care about.” The other reason my friend’s unexpected death came as a shock was that for the first time, I witnessed the challenges a young surviving spouse faces in pulling together not just a longer-term plan but taking over the reins of day-to-day financial issues. What had been theoretical – a series of calculations and checklists – was now the very real challenge of a wife pulling together the financial pieces after her husband unexpectedly died.

Based on this experience, I have begun revising my checklists and also making sure my own house is in order. If you’re interested in doing the same, here is what I would recommend:

Put Together a Plan – ideally, you have the time and money to put together a formal plan. A formal plan will take into account your existing assets and life insurance, as well as Social Security and any other survivor benefits. The goal of a formal plan is to show, mathematically, how a surviving spouse and any dependents will cover their financial needs.

If a formal plan isn’t in the cards, document an informal plan. In it, you should address things like what survivor benefits are available and how you intend for life insurance to be used. Ideally, you’ll want to calculate how income and assets will combine to cover expenses, but barring that, put together a brief narrative on how you expect things to work.

Draft a will and powers-of-attorney – a will provides legal guidance on how you want things handled after your death, while powers-of-attorney designate someone to act on your behalf should you become unable to do so. The will may, in the simplest of instances of spouses with no children who want everything to go to the surviving spouse, be legally superfluous but most situations aren’t that simple. Still, even for that hypothetical couple, powers-of-attorney would be needed. Beyond that, though, we can’t predict what will happen or how our situation will change, and a will and powers-of-attorney provide legal direction in these circumstances.

Document the Day-to-Day – if you handle day-to-day finances, document how you’ve set things up. If there are multiple checking and savings accounts, how are they used? How and when are bills paid, and what bills are there to pay? If you have a budget, save it somewhere that is accessible and if you can include assumed income that comes in to fund the budget, even better.

Complete a contact list and inventory – make a list of who should be contacted in the event of your unexpected death. Insurance agent or claims departments, financial advisor, accountant, and employer should all be included. Beyond that, keep an inventory of legal documents, assets and their locations. The list of items that fall under this category is lengthy. Insurance policies, wills, and powers-of-attorney, safety deposit box keys, savings bonds, precious metals, and collectibles are some of the most common things that would be included.

Don’t Forget Your Digital Assets – our lives are increasingly lived and documented online, so don’t forget to provide access to your digital assets. One of the easiest ways to do this (while maintaining good online security) is by using a password manager and providing information on accessing that password manager. Doing this will ensure that financial accounts, social media and photos, and videos could all be accessed should something happen to you.

It is easy to dismiss the possibility of a premature, unexpected death, particularly if you are young and healthy. Nevertheless, it can happen and completing the steps above is helpful for those closest to you in an extremely difficult time.