My marriage has always been equal with regard to decision-making. That’s why it pains me to admit how much I relied on my husband to handle the paperwork for our finances a few years ago.
Maybe it’s because I was a Canadian living in the States. Perhaps it was impostor syndrome.
Whatever the reason, I thought as long as my husband had a sizable life insurance policy, that was all that mattered. (What is life insurance?)
I’d quit my job as a teacher when we moved and wasn’t exactly contributing to the household finances. I thought life insurance was for those who were earning a regular salary (like my husband) and there were others who would need the payout (like me).
Sure, I was earning a bit of side hustle income as a freelance writer, but at that point it was barely enough to pay for childcare.
Then my career as a freelancer took off and I surpassed my husband’s income, making more than twice his take home pay! My earnings flowed toward the mortgage, extra house payments, retirement savings and our son’s future college expenses.
This new reality forced me to think about what would happen if I were gone. Could my husband afford the mortgage without my income? Could he retire comfortably without my future financial contributions? What would happen to my son’s college fund if I weren’t there?
The shift to being a breadwinner forced me to stop being so scared about tackling my estate planning. After all, I didn’t want to leave my family in a financial mess if I were to pass away. Or worse, if my husband and I both passed away and my young son was left to fend for himself.
I was still nervous, but my husband and I got our paperwork in order.
It was way more emotional than anticipated (especially when it came to deciding on guardianship) but sorting out our paperwork ended up being invaluable.
I was still pondering how my role as a breadwinner would change our family dynamics when one of my friend’s relatives suddenly passed away. Watching my friend grieve was gut-wrenching.
Piling complications on top of grief, this relative’s surviving spouse couldn't afford the funeral costs, and Social Security wasn’t enough to cover her living expenses. This relative had to beg family for financial help.
My friend and I chatted for a good while about how we wouldn’t want our spouses to be in the same situation.
This convinced me to pick a life insurance policy that reflected the fact I am contributing so much financially. I wanted to ensure that the payout would more than cover our mortgage and our son’s college expenses. Full-time childcare isn’t exactly cheap so I wanted to make sure there were enough funds to cover that amount.
This process also meant thinking through how to provide for my husband if he wanted to take extended time off work after my death.
I settled on a half million dollar policy. Afterwards, the application process was pretty straightforward since I used an online insurance company—I wasn’t required to go through a medical exam and my policy was approved within minutes.
Believe it or not, that was the easy part. Taking out a life insurance policy led my husband and me to realize we needed to have a longer conversation.
Sitting down with a glass of wine and a few slices of brie and Swiss cheese after dinner one night, my husband and I dug through our paperwork. Turned out that the last time we updated our estate planning was right after we got married.
Considering we have a son, I’ll admit, it freaked me out to see how long we’d waited to update our plan. Sure, if we were to both pass away, our son would technically have the rights to our estate, but who would take care of him?
I’m sure most families have their fair share of complicated situations. Ours was no different. Would my family in Canada be involved and if so, how would my son be able to access assets from another country? What if both our parents were too old to take care of him?
These are emotional questions, which is why I gave myself permission to slow down and think through each option carefully. I had a lengthy talk with my sister in Canada about my assets that were still there.
We talked about what she could do to help in case both my husband and I were to pass. That plan includes her contacting my husband’s family to ensure the transition is as smooth as possible for our son.
Once my husband and I settled on who would receive legal guardianship over our son, we invited his family over to dinner (plus mine over Skype) and discussed our wishes. This included how we wanted to impart our values onto him even if we weren’t around. Plus, we wanted to ensure that our relatives and our son’s guardians would openly communicate with each other so that he would be able to keep in touch with everyone.
I wanted to make sure my husband has access to my retirement and business bank accounts (which are by definition in my name only). We created an “in case of death” file filled with account information, including our life insurance policy information. That way, we know where all our important financial details are so neither of us are scrambling.
We also ended up going to a lawyer so he could walk to other aspects of our estate planning such as our health care directives and power of attorney.
Leaving the attorney’s office after putting finishing touches on our paperwork, I felt empowered. It was a great feeling knowing that I’m taking care of my family’s future, especially now that I’m the breadwinner.
This was the catalyst for me to get my estate planning in order. I regret not doing this sooner, even when I was the non-breadwinner. Stay-at-home moms (or a partner who earns less) still contribute meaningfully to the household—my husband would have to pay for childcare and other duties if I were gone.
Now, there are no loose ends: I have ample proof showing how I wanted my assets divided, who would gain guardianship over my son, plus money for my husband and son from my life insurance policy. That, and friends and relatives who know what my last wishes are and ensuring my son will be raised with my personal values in mind.
Perhaps the biggest lesson I’ve learned throughout this process is that even if you’re scared, it’s worth it to get a little bit uncomfortable, especially when it involves matters like your family.
I’m so grateful that I’m now able to understand what putting a solid estate plan means: an act of love toward those you care about the most.
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