My husband didn’t expect to be diagnosed with esophageal cancer at age 34. I didn’t expect to become a widow at age 35.

However, this is the path life laid before us.

While it’s hard to call it a silver-lining, we were fortunate in that I was always our family’s breadwinner. I paid the bills, filed the important documents and knew the ins and outs of our insurance policies. That didn’t make a bad situation better, but it meant I was able to avoid much of the confusion and many of the mistakes that can be made when someone is thrust into handling finances during a stressful situation.

 
 

Unfortunately, not all women are as fortunate. In extreme cases, some find themselves faced with a crisis and no idea where their money is located or how to access it.

Now, I’m not suggesting you take over the family finances from your husband, but all women – of all ages – should be prepared to step in and take the reins as needed.

You Never Know When Life Will Surprise You

My husband died after three years of hoping and praying modern medicine would work a miracle. His esophagus was removed, and he endured months of chemotherapy and radiation only to have the tumor come back and eventually close off his windpipe. In the end, his death wasn’t unexpected although it still strangely felt that way.

My mom had the opposite experience. In the course of one week, my 74 year-old dad went from feeling a little under the weather to being rushed to the emergency room to coming home with hospice and passing away.

While I had always taken care of my family’s finances, my mom, quite frankly, didn’t have a clue. Money was solely my dad’s domain. Fortunately, I helped prepare their taxes so even though she didn’t know what accounts they had, I did.

It doesn’t matter how old you are. Death, divorce and disability all come calling when you least expect it so don’t wait to be prepared.

If you aren’t already involved in your family finances, here are five simple ways to be informed without stepping on your spouse’s toes or looking like you’re attempting to take over his territory.

Ask for a List of All Accounts and Online Passwords

Regardless of who actually pays the bills, both spouses need to know where and how to find the household assets.

Ask your husband to write a list of all your family’s accounts along with their numbers and any passwords or PINs needed to access them. Keep this information in a secure place where you can easily access it if needed.

Review Statements Regularly

Make a point to look over all financial statements on a regular basis. Pay particular attention to your main checking account to become familiar with how much money is coming in and which bills need to be paid monthly.

Since many households have quarterly or annual bills as well, ask your spouse to write those down for you.

It’s not unheard of for someone to lose a house for missing a property tax payment so you want those details in case anything should happen your spouse. Store this information along with your bank account numbers.

Familiarize Yourself with Family Insurance Policies

You’ll also want to understand the insurance policies that cover you and your spouse. If your husband is still working, he may have disability, health and life insurance through his employer. If he’s retired, he may have a private health plan or Medicare as well as a privately purchased term or whole life policy.

Introduce Yourself to Your Insurance Agent and Financial Planner

If your family has an insurance agent or a financial planner, you don’t want to be meeting him or her for the first time when you’re in the midst of a crisis. Instead, accompany your husband to his next meeting with these professionals or pick up the phone and call them yourself.

It doesn’t need to be a long conversation. Simply introduce yourself and explain that you wanted to touch base since you’re in the process of going over the family finances.

Make a Will and Keep a Copy

Writing a will might not sound like fun, but without one, an estate could spend months, if not years, being sorted out by the courts. It’s especially important if you have a blended family, previous spouses or a large amount of assets.

Get you and your husband’s wishes on paper to minimize your odds of having to referee a contentious family debate in the middle of your grief.

These five steps are simple ways to get a big picture view of your family finances. If your husband balks at sharing any of this information, you may have deeper issues to address – ones that may require a visit to a competent counselor.

No one knows when they will find themselves alone and in charge of the checkbook. Be grateful if your husband is willing to do the money management now but be ready to do it yourself when he is no longer able.

Has someone that you know had to take over their family finances after losing her husband? What advice would you give to the other women in our community who may be facing a similar situation? Please join the conversation.

Maryalene LaPonsieAfter 15 years of marriage, Maryalene LaPonsie lost her high school sweetheart and husband to cancer. Today, she maintains the site The Mighty Widow where she chronicles life after love and the challenges of parenting through grief. When not busy raising her and her late husband’s five children, Maryalene works as a personal finance writer and is a weekly contributor to U.S. News & World Report. You can connect with her on Pinterest, Instagram or Google+.

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