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Voice of Experience

Voice of Experience: April 2024

How to Navigate Financial Planning for Death

Cathy Stricklin Krendl


  • One of the most important lists when preparing for the death of a loved one is their list of assets.
  • What to identify in the list of assets and why it is important to keep it up to date.
  • Steps to take if your loved one is diagnosed with a memory-affecting disease when preparing the estate. 
How to Navigate Financial Planning for Death

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Preparation and Location of Important Documents

As attorneys, you know that you should keep your estate planning documents up-to-date, particularly if you have health issues or move to another state. However, that accomplishes nothing if the person who will administer your estate does not know the location of your most recent will with any codicils, general and health care powers of attorney, health care directives, and trust documents, if any. This is even more important now that many estate planning attorneys have their clients keep the originals of these documents.

Further, the administrator of your estate must have knowledge of, and easy access to, the estate’s assets and be able to determine the estate’s liabilities. I learned this the hard way when my loved ones died. One loved one left no list of assets, liabilities, or other obligations, just a desk stuffed full of papers. Another left, many files with many duplicate copies, but no lists. These experiences led me to appreciate lists of assets and liabilities 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 gold-plated. Hopefully, the lists I describe in this article will prove equally helpful to you.

CAVEAT. These lists contain 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. 

Identifying Assets of the Estate 

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

  1. Identify each asset, including retirement accounts, bank 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, 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.
  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 periodically. Most important, of course, locate and document 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 as well as to file tax returns.

How to Compile Asset Information

Be prepared to be patient and understand that this process will take a few months. One way to do this is to review all digital and paper statements for at least a year, including bank statements, tax returns, retirement account statements, and investment account statements. Do this monthly to preserve your sanity.


It will be tough for your estate administrator to deal with illiquid assets and property in multiple states. If it makes sense from a financial and tax standpoint, consider selling illiquid assets and assets in other states, but not if the current market price is much greater than the property’s basis.  Also, how many bank accounts, retirement accounts, and investment accounts do you need? Maybe all of them, but at least think about it.

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.

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 you should avoid.

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 your spouse on your life will be included in the estate of your 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.  If you do decide to change the beneficiaries of your account, you should 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 it will take to control the accounts of the deceased. Sometimes, 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 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 Canceled

Identifying the services or obligations to be canceled 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, user name, and password. Items to consider may include the following:

  • Services such as AAA, housekeeping, lawn maintenance, sprinkler system, snow removal, and other ongoing maintenance.
  • Life, home or renters, car (general liability and umbrella) insurance, and health insurance.
  • Retailers with passwords, such as Amazon and department or big box stores.
  • Credit cards.
  • Bank accounts
  • Social Security and Medicare.
  • Internet, phone, and cable.
  • Utilities such as water and electricity.
  • Newspapers and magazines.
  • Airlines, airline clubs, and frequent flyer programs.
  • Landlord or mortgage company.
  • Professional organizations, such as ABA and state and local bar associations, and licensing entities, such as the state Supreme Court.
  • Universities and alumni associations.
  • Computer and software services.
  • Property tax entity in states where you own real property (with insurance information).
  • Social media, Linked-In, Google, Facebook, X, Instagram, Skype, Zoom, etc.
  • Hotels and car reward programs.
  • Passport and Trusted Travel Programs.
  • Physician portals.
  • Grocery and other delivery services.
  • Uber
  • Credit bureaus, such as Equifax.
  • College Invest and other 529 plans.

Good luck in your quest to make the job of the administrator of your estate much easier. They will thank you.