You never know when something is going to happen. In my case, J’s stroke came out of nowhere — no warning, no risk factors, no history. I was one of the many people who internally acknowledge that there’s always a risk of something bad happening but, sadly, never did anything to prepare for it. Though married 10 years (and this being both our second marriages), we didn’t have a will, power of attorney, estate plan, or anything like that. We’re both intelligent, well-educated individuals so it is fair to ask how that could be and the answer is simply; Life. You get busy, you get distracted, you say you will do it all tomorrow, and yet time rolls on.
So when something happens, aside from dealing with the immediacy of the situation, you need to think about the longer range implications especially in life-threatening instances. In our case, since this was our second marriage, not everything we have such as bank accounts or property was in both our names. We each had our own cell phones and computers, where we stored personal information, yet didn’t readily share our passwords with each other. I had a sense of what J’s wishes might be in case of a severe injury but she didn’t have a living will or anything that designated me to be her health advocate.
What I learned very quickly is that, even if you are legally married, the laws/rules for how organizations will treat you or share information with you on behalf of your spouse vary from state to state. In our case, thankfully the medical providers were satisfied with my status as husband and consulted me on all health-related issues. My first obstacle was access to J’s mobile phone; her work and personal email, contacts, and bank accounts. I didn’t even know how to reach her boss to let her know what happened. Thankfully, J had kept her passwords on post-it notes on her desk so I was able to gain access to critical accounts, but I couldn’t get into her iPhone. She hadn’t even set up the touch id.
Amazingly, J’s employer (she was the sole breadwinner at the time) was the second and most difficult obstacle as the Human Resources and Payroll departments refused to discuss her insurance, benefit and payroll information with me without proof of power of attorney. My only way around this, after consulting an attorney, was to establish a conservatorship. I’ll discuss this in depth in a future post.
The conservatorship was also the key to accessing other accounts that were critical to keeping the family running — we needed to pay bills, mortgages, etc. All of this took time and setting this up in the midst of this life crisis over the course of the first few weeks took a huge toll on my emotional and physical well being.
My advice is “Be Prepared!”
- At a minimum, have a power of attorney (POA) in place for each other so that you can deal with medical and financial transactions without worry. A POA is easy and inexpensive to do but can give you tremendous peace of mind. Note: A POA doesn’t solve all your problems — The Social Security Administration, for example, doesn’t recognize a POA in some cases — so it’s best to consult an attorney and see what else should be done.
- If you maintain separate financial accounts or access to important websites, share your passwords with each other. I do not recommend writing them all on Post-It notes or counting on your browser saving them. I’m currently evaluating password managers such as Dashlane and LastPass that will safely save your passwords and provide a mechanism to share them with family as needed. I’ll provide a write up of what I found soon.
Importantly, share your mobile phone password with your partner. Mobile phones are an important and integral part of everyone’s day to day activities that access to it in the first few hours is vital to be able to reach family, friends, and employers. I wasn’t able to gain access to J’s phone for nearly 4 months.
- Talk about each other’s wishes in case of an accident. Best case is to do a living will and appoint a health advocate, but at least have a discussion so you have some guidelines. As I said, I had some idea of what J’s wishes would be in the event of a devastating injury and I was constantly measuring her progress and the various decision points and milestones in her recovery against what she would have wanted. Thankfully I didn’t have to make a tough decision, but for example, had the doctors not been able to take her off the respirator, I would have known what I had to do.
- Don’t become complacent. Keep your records, files, passwords, etc., current and accessible. It’s easy to forget just how much work it takes to run a household and when you are suddenly the sole provider, each minute you spend trying to track things down is one less minute to spend with your ailing partner. For example, my daughter’s school lunch account managed through an online service went unpaid for several months simply because I didn’t even know it existed. I got an email from the principal stating we were way overdue, and that was one more embarrassment I didn’t need.
I will write more about preparedness as it is an ongoing issue for us — we still don’t have an estate plan or will or password manager. All I can say is thank goodness we both have technology backgrounds and are comfortable handling our affairs through online services. Ultimately, that made my life much easier as I was able to use J’s existing accounts, which likely isn’t completely legal in all cases until I was able to secure my own direct access. If this was 1998 and everything was done in person or on paper, I’m not sure what I would have done.