During our first meeting, a recent client of mine shared her story:My husband of 59 years died recently and I’m feeling overwhelmed by day-to-day decisions. I expected to feel the emotions associated with grief, but I never expected to feel helpless. My husband took care of our financial life and I’m really at a loss. I don’t want my children to know how much this confuses me and I certainly don’t want their help if that means they take over. I should be perfectly capable of handling my own affairs. How can I get on top of things so that I can manage on my own?
Her emotional challenge is common and the difficulties may be exacerbated by how the division of labor was handled between the partners during their marriage. Such a division of labor, for example, may have meant one spouse took care of the finances and the other took care of all the shopping and cooking. That was fine as long as both spouses were willing and able to do their jobs. However, if because of illness, attitude, capacity, or death, one of them can no longer hold up his or her end of the bargain, there is trouble brewing.
The best way to avoid this is through “cross training.” In this way, one partner teaches the other his or her system for accomplishing their job. If that’s not an option, then at least each should document the process and the facts of how they handle their tasks for the other. Each partner should be aware of where financial documents are kept, how to access the funds and what bills need paying. Both should have copies of supermarket/Costco or Sam’s Club cards and debit cards, know the nutritional needs (and food allergies) of the other and the contact information of the housekeeper, home aide, and other service providers.
However, what do you do if such cross training or documentation never happened?
The short answer is that it’s never too late to learn if you want to and don’t suffer from physical or cognitive complaints that make such learning too difficult. If you don’t want to or can’t learn, then you can hire someone to take over the tasks on your behalf.
There’s a middle ground, too. Maybe it is too overwhelming to step in and figure out how to do something you’ve never had to do before, but you’re not ready to completely outsource it either. In this case, you can bring in a professional daily money manager who can set up a system for you, teach you how to use it, and then check in with you periodically to make sure that you’re on track and answer any questions that might come up.
That’s exactly what my client did. She had me figure out her late husband’s financial system, bring it up to date, and then modify it until it made sense to her. Once we got to that point, it was easy for her to take over and maintain the process. At first we had a check-in meeting every other week, and then every month. At that point, I felt that she was ready for a quarterly meetings, but she liked the idea that I was looking over her shoulder, “just in case,” so we met more frequently.
As the months passed, new issues came up. For example, while the bill paying was well under control, when it came time to deal with the annual income tax return, my client became overwhelmed again. Then her car lease came to an end and she was having a tough time making a decision about whether to lease a new car, buy out her current car, or purchase a new one. We did the analysis together and I helped her negotiate her new arrangement.
Losing a life partner if tough is so many ways. It adds insult to injury to feel as though you can’t take care of yourself because of your loss. There’s help available, whether from family, friends, or qualified professionals. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. It is not a mark of weakness, but one of strength.