We were in the fresh glow of marriage, just eight months after our vows, when emergency struck — the kind with flashing ambulances, electric shocks and breathing tubes. I was out of town visiting my mother in hospice when I got the phone call: My husband, Brian, a fit 30-something, had gone into sudden cardiac arrest during his first summer-league basketball game of the season.
The weeks that followed were a blur of hospital rooms. I had barely adjusted to using the terms “husband” and “spouse,” and suddenly here I was, responsible for making major decisions about my partner’s care. With our promises to be there “in sickness and in health” yanked out of the abstract, I realized how ill-prepared I was to be in this position. During the long, anxious hours that I kept vigil at Brian’s bedside, I had plenty of time to mull over worst-case scenarios. What were his end-of-life wishes, if it were to come to that? I didn’t even know.
Thankfully, Brian pulled though. He’s back to playing basketball, back to his day job and back to the minutiae of daily life. But “The Incident,” as we call it now, inspired us to better prepare for the unexpected. My husband’s health scare made us realize we needed to work on our financial planning. Here’s what we did.
WE MET WITH A FINANCIAL ADVISOR
Once Brian recuperated and we started to settle back into the normal rhythms of life, we took time to evaluate our finances and future wishes. Having to navigate a near-death health crisis was challenging enough. If another unexpected scenario were to happen, we wanted to be better organized and not leave behind a financial mess — which would further complicate the already heightened stress and grief. To help us map out a plan, we met with a financial advisor to get clarity on our financial goals and needs. That allowed us to put the pieces of our plan in place, which gave us peace of mind.
WE DESIGNATED BENEFICIARIES
Designating each other as beneficiaries was low-hanging fruit. We combed through each of our accounts and added or updated the beneficiaries for each. This included bank accounts, investment accounts, retirement accounts (for us, 401(k)s and IRAs), insurance and flexible spending accounts. For brokerage accounts we updated our transfer on death (TOD) instructions, and for our checking and savings accounts, payable on death (POD) instructions.
I had barely adjusted to using the terms “husband” and “spouse,” and suddenly here I was, responsible for making major decisions about my partner’s care.
That will allow the funds in each account to easily pass on without going through probate court. We were able to accomplish this easily and quickly online. This simple step can save a lot of hassle (and expense) in the future: Because beneficiary forms trump wills, having up-to-date beneficiary information ensures that your hard-earned money will go to the correct person when you’re gone.
WE STREAMLINED OUR ACCOUNTS
Updating our beneficiaries had useful after effects. First, it made us question all our accounts. Did we need four Roth IRAs? (Nope!) What’s up with that orphaned 401(k) from a previous job? After taking inventory, we combined redundant accounts. Second, it revealed gaps in our shared knowledge. When we married after seven years together, we set up a system with joint bank accounts for shared expenses like rent and bills, and opted to retain some of our individual accounts for independent use. The problem was, we never shared details about these individual accounts with each other. If Brian hadn’t recovered, his hard-earned savings may have been lost to the ages.
WE FORMALIZED OUR END-OF-LIFE WISHES
Though we had talked about writing a will over the years, the need felt distant and not urgent, something we would take care of eventually. The term “estate planning” had summoned images of sprawling mansions and chests of gold coins, trappings of a life grander than the one we built in our tiny city apartment. The Incident brought into sharp focus the fact that estate planning covers more basic things than who gets what (theoretical) yacht, and that unexpected events can happen to anyone — even healthy, relatively young people like us. Having the necessary conversations to understand each other’s preferences in the event of death or illness — and cementing the details with a will, powers of attorney, health care proxy and advance directive — removes the guesswork for the surviving or caregiving spouse. It’s a gesture of love.
WE REEVALUATED OUR INSURANCE
Insurance, by definition, provides protection in the event of the unexpected. In the aftermath of The Incident, we took the opportunity to evaluate our insurance coverage and update our renters insurance to avoid any lapses.
We also now realize the importance of life and disability insurance. Unfortunately, because of The Incident, it may be difficult for Brian to get any more insurance beyond what he’s offered at work. We hope others will take inspiration from our story and get life and disability insurance while still young and healthy, so something like this won’t prevent getting coverage.
WE GOT MORE INTENTIONAL WITH OUR SAVINGS
Combing through our finances, we discovered patterns in our approach to saving. We had diligently been saving for retirement through our employer-sponsored plans, but we hadn’t been earmarking savings for other specific purposes. This led us to set up dedicated high-yield savings accounts. The first was to act as a safety net: an emergency fund to cover expenses in case we were ever unemployed, suffering a health crisis, needed to fix the car, or even just had to replace a broken phone. But building a more resilient plan for life’s surprises isn’t only about making provisions for worst-case scenarios; it’s also about planning for the joys and aspirations that bring sunshine to our lives. Accordingly, we also set up a fund for fun, including creative pursuits like taking art classes and travel.
The Incident woke us up to the fact that nothing in life is guaranteed. It galvanized us to get clear on our priorities as a couple — not only for how we want to save and spend our money, but also how we want to spend our lives together.