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Make Sure Your Spouse Has Your Passwords

It’s critical for women to have access to key financial information as well as passwords to electronic records and devices.

About a year ago, my friend Susie’s husband of 46 years died unexpectedly. John, a dedicated techie, left Susie with wonderful memories, an estate to settle and a technology nightmare: an Apple computer, four iPads, four iPhones, a stack of hard drives—and no passwords. That left her unable to get access to critical information (think tax records) and accounts in his name that were on autopay, including Amazon Prime and the cell phone bill.

To help her crack the codes, Susie hired someone from her IT department at work. They were never able to get into the computer, but thanks to a combination of logic and “wild guesses,” they managed to open the iPads and iPhones. The entire process took almost a year, “and it all occurred during a time when, as a grieving widow, you are most vulnerable,” says Susie.

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Getting access to key financial and estate information has always been a critical issue for women, who are statistically more likely than men to be widowed or may have a spouse who suffers from a serious illness. “The problem has gotten more pronounced as we’ve gone more digital,” says Jody King, director of financial planning at Fiduciary Trust Co. in Boston. “With digital records and passwords, there’s no paperwork to help you find accounts no one knew existed,” she says.

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A further complication is that women of all ages often delegate key financial and estate responsibilities to their spouse. “Younger women may have a better awareness of the family’s financial situation than older generations, but they still may not choose to be involved,” says King.

To address that problem, Marilee Fitzgerald and Robyn Wagman co-founded Estate of Mine Organizers, a system for helping women organize both personal and financial records. Their system includes checklists of must-have documents—a will, powers of attorney for financial and health affairs, bank and investment accounts—but it also covers facets of life other than financial: Where is the warranty for your new stove? The titles to your cars? The name of the furnace repair person? (Susie had to scramble to find a plumber on New Year’s Eve when her ice maker broke, gushing water onto the floor.)

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Minimize surprises. Fitzgerald and Wagman have found that a number of issues tend to trip people up—for example, bene­ficiary designations on life insurance policies or retirement accounts. “People don’t understand that beneficiaries take precedence over anything you have in your will,” says Wagman, “and they often forget to update them.”

She and Fitzgerald suggest other ways to avoid unpleasant surprises: Be sure your joint bank account really is in both names. Have a credit card in your own name, and get a copy of each spouse’s credit reports. Keep a copy of your will outside the safe deposit box (see "9 Things You'll Regret Keeping in a Safe Deposit Box").

If getting organized sounds overwhelming, start small. When Fitzgerald and Wagman wanted to get their own affairs in order, Fitzgerald began by compiling a list of emergency contacts, and Wagman started by opening the mail and looking at bills and insurance paperwork. Then, says Fitzgerald, “practice being on your own by taking over the finances for a couple of weeks to minimize surprises.”

And what about keeping tabs on those devilish passwords? The women I interviewed for this column use digital password managers (Kiplinger’s often recommends LastPass)—but as backup, they also keep a written record and store it in a place that’s secure yet accessible to family members. They consider the risk that written passwords might be stolen less serious than making sure everyone can find them in an emergency—and avoiding a situation like Susie’s.

Even in this digital age, paper still rules. Says King, “Any documentation you have is always the best thing.”

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