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Getting Your Financial House in Order for Yourself and Your Family

Cathy Stricklin Krendl


  • To facilitate managing family finances or administering an estate, it's important to prepare detailed lists containing sensitive financial information.
  • There are significant challenges faced when loved ones pass away without providing essential financial details.
  • Your lists should include assets, liabilities, and obligations, along with information about contacts, usernames, passwords, and locations of relevant documents.
  • There are special considerations for cases involving dementia or other memory-affecting diseases including access to accounts, who should have the authority to withdraw money from accounts, identifying the owner and beneficiary of each life insurance policy, access to retirement accounts, access to immediate cash, family liabilities, and services and other obligations that should be immediately canceled.
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I have suffered technicolor nightmares while managing family finances during a loved one’s terminal illness and estates when loved ones have died. One loved one left no list of assets, liabilities, or other obligations, just a desk stuffed full of papers. Another left many, many files with many, many duplicate copies, but no lists. These experiences led me to appreciate lists with updated contact information. As a result, when my husband was diagnosed with dementia, my first self-appointed task was to compile lists. This took me months, but when my husband died, the lists were so valuable that they were gold-plated. Hopefully, the lists I describe in this article will prove equally helpful to you.

Big caveat: These lists contain the kind of sensitive information that would be a hacker’s delight. Equally important, you, your spouse or loved one may not wish anyone else to have this treasure trove. Consider, then, how to protect this information. You might want to make the lists in handwriting and keep them with your original will, preferably in a safe. A safety deposit box won’t work because the lists and passwords may change frequently. If you prefer to keep all this information online, please consult an expert on how to keep your information safe. Another alternative is to leave the lists with a trusted confidant.

Family Assets

The most important list is the list of your assets with updated information. Consider the following:

  1. Make a list of each asset, including retirement accounts, banks accounts, investment accounts, real property and life insurance.
  2. Determine the person or entity (trust) that holds the title to each asset.
  3. Identify the location of each asset, for example, Vanguard or T Rowe Price or a bank. If the asset has a title document, such as real property or a vehicle, locate the title and make sure it is in an accessible and safe place. If you have appraisals for jewelry, art, or real property, keep them in the same place with the property itself.
  4. Add the contact information for each asset, including physical address, email address, phone number, and if applicable, the contact person for the asset (particularly for investment assets) and update that information periodically. Most important, of course, identify the username and password for each asset.
  5. Determine the approximate value of each asset. Your attorney will need this information to provide estate planning advice.

Special Considerations If Your Loved One Has Dementia or Other Disease Affecting Memory

There are two items to consider if your spouse or loved one has a disease that will impair memory because you or someone else should then handle the family finances. This will require the patient’s complete trust in you or the other person, and of your or that person’s ability to manage the family finances. However, these measures are important to provide access to funds to pay the bills.

Access to Accounts

Identify the person or persons who have access to the account. If you or the other person who is managing the family finances or estate does not have access, determine the procedure and paperwork necessary to permit access. This is critical, because without it, you or the other person will not be permitted to access critical information about the account, including the activity in the account. If the fund that holds the assets does not send paper statements, then you may not even have access to the statements. Try to gain access while the patient is competent. Further, avoid having to rely solely on a general power of attorney. If it is the only alternative, of course, use it. In my experience, however, that requires time and hassle to avoid when dealing with the stress of a loved one’s illness.

Withdrawing Money from Investment and Other Accounts

Consider who should have the authority to withdraw cash from the assets. In my case, my husband and I both had authority in the beginning, but as his dementia advanced, we eliminated his authority. This is very tricky in the case of dementia. You must make a decision while your loved one is still capable of making an informed decision but before he or she can make ill-advised decisions.

Special Precautions: Life Insurance

Identify the owner and beneficiary of each life insurance policy. If they are different, discuss with your lawyer the advisability of making the owner and beneficiary the same. Also, if you wish to avoid probate, ask your lawyer whether the cash value of life insurance policies owned by the ill spouse on the life of the well spouse will be included in the estate of the ill spouse.

Special Precautions: Retirement Accounts

As explained above, try to make sure you or the other person has access to the loved one’s retirement account. Discuss with a lawyer how to handle beneficiaries of each retirement account to facilitate a transfer without probate. Beware that any time a spouse changes the beneficiaries of an account, his or her spouse may need to consent. The entity may even require a guaranteed signature, which is usually available at a bank but nonetheless a hassle when dealing with an illness. Be sure that if you do decide to change the beneficiaries of your account, you obtain spousal consent before there is an issue of competency.

Access to Immediate Cash

Consider having at least one bank account in joint name with your loved one and you or the other person handling the family finances or who will handle the estate. The account should have enough cash to last a few months. Discuss with your attorney how long will it take to control the accounts of the deceased. In Texas, because of COVID deaths, that process could take many months. Of course, if the person handling your finances or estate has authority over the accounts, then he or she may not need to obtain authority from a court. However, in my experience, the moment I notified an investment fund that my husband was deceased, the account was frozen for a limited time. This may not happen in your situation, but be prepared if it does. See Access to Accounts and Withdrawing Money from Investment and other Accounts above.

Family Liabilities

Compile a list of the family liabilities, including the obligor of each liability with contact information, such as physical address, email address, telephone number, contact person, username, and password.

This can be more complicated than apparent. A mortgage and cable television, internet, and cell phone contracts are obvious obligations. However, don’t forget ongoing charges that are automatically withdrawn from a bank account or charged to credit cards. Check the bank account and credit card statements for at least the prior twelve months and add to the list of liabilities the automatic withdrawals or charges, such as newspaper subscriptions, Netflix, etc.

An easy way to stop automatic withdrawals is to cancel all credit cards and restrict all bank accounts upon the death of the loved one.

Determine interest rates and priority of payment. Try to pay as many debts and eliminate as many obligations as possible to avoid leaving the hassle to your heirs.

Services and Other Obligations That Should Be Cancelled

Identifying the services or obligations to be cancelled with current contact information can be daunting after a death or when you are managing family finances. Make it easier by compiling information while you or your loved one is alive and in good health.

Make a list of each service or obligation with the physical address, email address, telephone number, contact person, username and password of associated accounts. Items to consider may include the following:

  1. Services such as AAA, housekeeping, lawn maintenance, sprinkler system, snow removal, and other ongoing maintenance;
  2. Life, home or renters, car (general liability and umbrella) insurance and health insurance;
  3. Retailers with passwords, such as Amazon and department or big box stores;
  4. Credit cards;
  5. Bank accounts;
  6. Social security and Medicare;
  7. Internet, phone and cable;
  8. Utilities such as water and electricity;
  9. Newspapers and magazines;
  10. Airlines, airline clubs and frequent flyer programs;
  11. Landlord or mortgage company;
  12. Professional organizations, such as ABA and state and local bar associations, and licensing entities such as the state Supreme Court;
  13. Universities and alumni associations;
  14. Computer and software services;
  15. Property tax entity in states where you own real property (with insurance information);
  16. Social media, LinkedIn, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Skype, Zoom etc.;
  17. Hotels and car reward programs;
  18. Passport and Trusted Traveler Programs;
  19. Physician portals;
  20. Grocery and other delivery services;
  21. Uber accounts;
  22. Credit bureaus such as Equifax; and
  23. College Invest and other 529 plans.

Preparation and Location of Important Documents

Immediately after a diagnosis of dementia or other terminal illness at a time when competency is not an issue, make sure your loved one’s estate planning documents are up-to-date. Then tell the person who will administer the estate the location of your loved one’s most recent will with any amendments, general and health care powers of attorney, health care directives, and trust documents, if any. Also, make sure that person knows the location of your tax returns for at least the last seven years with name and contact information of tax preparer as well as the location of appraisals, titles, and deeds for your assets.


Just what you need to know now that you will be in charge of family finances or administering an estate! Give me a break, you say. I have enough to do. I get that, but if you prepare these lists over time, especially when your loved one can help you, it will make your job much easier in the long run.