Dear Wife, Here’s How to FIRE If I Die Early

I was thinking the other day that although my wife and I make all of our financial decisions together, I am usually the one pulling the trigger and moving the money around. I like to read boring terms and conditions, geek out on all our tax stuff, deal with real estate, etc. 

I have a passion for personal finance, which helps! She does not — and I don’t blame her as most people find this shit boring.

Anyway, this morbid thought came to mind … If I die before we’re financially independent, my wife might have a hard time converting our “couples FIRE plan” into a “single person’s FIRE plan.”

Thinking about death isn’t fun, and planning for it is even worse. But hey, we all die someday. And with the increased shark sightings at my local surf spot recently, maybe I’ll be gone sooner rather than later. 🤷‍♂️ Bad joke — sorry.

Until now, I haven’t done much estate planning. Since we don’t have kids yet and no big debts, I’ve kind of just assumed that when I die, my wife would be fine financially. She’s certainly capable of figuring stuff out on her own (10x my smarts). But because our portfolio landscape is a little messy right now (various real estate investments, random bank/credit card churning, multiple retirement accounts, etc.), maybe it’s time I start documenting some of this stuff and coming up with a formal plan that would help her.

So, I started writing down some changes my wife would want to make to streamline our (her) finances when I am no longer in the picture. Our overall FI strategy wouldn’t change that much (Coast FI), but having some written plans is never a bad idea — especially for someone dealing with grief of a lost loved one.

Below is a draft letter, which is just a starting-off point. This coming year I’m going to prioritize more official estate plans, including a will, proper records, and all that grow-up stuff I should have started years ago.

***BTW… As I was researching some of this estate planning stuff, I came across 2 much more thorough articles you might want to check out. Checklist for when a spouse dies and Write this letter to your family before you’re gone.***

Things to Do With Our Money If I Die

“Dear beautiful wife,

So sorry I broke my promise to live until we’re both 100… And I’m even more sorry about the financial shitshow I’m leaving behind! Hopefully, this letter will help you clean up the mess, simplify our stuff, and help you create a new/clean plan moving forward.

Things to Do Immediately

Nothing! Honestly, there’s nothing you need to worry about within the first few weeks of my death.

  • You have enough cash in our checking accounts to live for a few months.
  • Your name is on ALL our cash accounts as a joint owner.
  • ALL our credit cards are on auto-pay.
  • ALL our bills and utilities are on auto-pay.
  • ALL our properties and syndications are cash flow positive with rent auto-deposited into our accounts.

So don’t freak out or worry about money right away. Nothing needs to be handled urgently.

Things to Do Within ~1 Month

Before you can do anything with our (your) accounts, you’ll probably need to show the bank/brokerage/etc some paperwork, like official copies of my death certificate and our marriage certificate. A copy of our marriage certificate is with this letter! But you’ll have to order my death certificate from the city or county. Order a few of them. You might be surprised how often you have to give someone this document.

To start taking action, contact the Social Security Admin office and report my death. You can do this over the phone (1-800-772-1213) or in person at an office.

  • If we have a child, you are eligible for monthly survivor benefits of $2,132 per month starting right now, until the kid is 16! Also, the child gets $2,132 per month. So in total, you’ll receive $4,264 per month. 
  • If we don’t have children, you’ll only get survivor benefits when you reach retirement age. ~It’s like $2,843 per month starting when you’re 67.

Next, (this is optional, totally up to you) withdraw $20k – $50k in cash from our taxable brokerage account (TD). You will need to sell some stock to do this — just call the TD Ameritrade number and they will walk you through it. Transfer this cash into our checking account.

Use this cash to:

  • Cover funeral costs (Don’t do anything fancy – just throw a massive party and invite all our friends! Maybe fly my fam out from Australia?)
  • Take time off work, as much as you need. 6 months, 1 year, or longer, it’s up to you.
  • This cash will cover living expenses (auto-pays the credit cards)

Please don’t feel bad for taking time off work and spending our money. Spending $50k only puts a tiny dent in our overall net worth and won’t majorly derail any of your early retirement plans.

Things to Do Within 1 – 3 Months

Log into our Mint.com account, and you’ll see a list of all our assets, accounts, credit cards, etc. These are also all listed in our Net Worth spreadsheet. Here is what to do with each of them:

Checking Accounts: Since you are listed as the primary beneficiary on all my accounts (100%), you don’t need to go through the probate process. Just call the bank directly and change them into your name. For any old account with a $0 balance, just close the account completely. You probably only need 1 main checking account going forward.

Credit Cards: Sorry we have so many, you really only need 1 going forward! Contact all of the banks and credit card companies and cancel the cards in my name with a $0 balance. These are old and no longer needed. You just need 1 main CC going forward → whatever one you decide, just make sure bills are auto-paid from the main checking account each month.

Investment Accounts: Again, for the ones in my name, you are listed as the primary beneficiary (100%). You can deal with the banks/brokers directly to change the names without going through probate.

Joint brokerage: Change this into your sole name. Should be easy-peasy.

My IRA: They will convert this into an “inherited IRA.” Don’t touch this account, just let it grow until the year 2045. (That’s when I would have turned 60). There will be about ~$1M in this account by then. You’ll be taxed when you withdraw this later in life, so do it in small amounts annually as needed.

Roth: As my spouse (and listed primary beneficiary) you can just change this account into your name, and it will be treated as if it was yours all along! (Ideally, try to consolidate my Roth with your existing Roth!) This is called a “Spousal Transfer”. Remember, Roths grow tax-free so leave the assets in this account alone as long as possible.

HSA: Same as the Roth → do a “Spousal Transfer” and this now becomes your HSA account. Let it grow tax free as long as you can for future medical costs.

Gift accounts for nephews: This money technically isn’t ours, it’s owned by our nephews. But since they are still minors, an adult custodian must be assigned (me currently). My advice would be to change the custodian to the kids’ parents → get the management off your plate.

Physical Rentals: Contact xxxx at xxxx management company and she’ll help you transfer the titles into your name. Since we have joint ownership, when I die, the ownership should revert to you as the sole survivor.

Syndications: The full list of contacts is *here.* Notify everyone and ask them how to change the ownership into your name. The private partnership agreements make this pretty easy and your name is listed on most of the shares anyway.

Things to Do Within 3 Months – 1 Year

Set an appointment with our tax guy, xxxxxx. Tell him everything that’s going on, the changes you’re making with our assets and ask him what forms to save and collect. He’ll help file your taxes.

List and sell all the physical rental properties. Xxxxx will help you do this! Put all the sale proceeds into our TD brokerage account. Invest everything in VTI, just like all the other money in there. (This is optional, of course. But I think you’ll be much better off owning no physical real estate.)

Figure out the DMV process to put the Prius in your name. Here’s a list of forms and paperwork you might need for that.

Contact my retirement broker in Australia. I have about $30k down there in a retirement account and you are the non-contingent beneficiary. I believe you are able to “withdraw” these funds as a lump sum, being that you are not an Australian citizen. My parents can help you research and figure out that crap. If you’re able to get the funds out, move the money to the U.S., stick it in your brokerage and buy VTI.

Things to Do Between Years 1 – 5

I’ve got some good news and bad news…

The bad news is, we are not financially independent yet. So you’ll have to continue working at some point, and growing our (your) retirement nest egg.

The good news is, you have a 1M+ net worth, which gives you considerable momentum! If you can cover your basic living expenses and leave all the investment accounts untouched, you will probably retire before your 45th birthday! We’ve been on this train for a while already — Coast FI baby!!

Some things to help you out…

Take a year to figure out your *new* approximate annual spending (without me in the picture). Continue to use Mint.com to track expenses and spending trends.

Keep using our budget template in *google docs* to make sure you’re on track each year.

If you overspend a little within a year, no problem! It will just take you a tiny bit longer to reach FI. A $10-15k variance isn’t a huge deal at this point. Don’t stress.

If you underspend a little within a year, that’s great, too! Keep putting all excess savings into the brokerage account and buying VTI.

Track your net worth every few months to make sure things are trending upward. If the market crashes or has dips, don’t freak out. Just leave everything untouched and let it rebound.

Once your net worth reaches 25 – 30x your annual spending, you’ve reached FI and can do whatever you want for the rest of your life!

You know most of this already, but I wanted to write it down anyway. It really is this simple, and you can do it.

My Wishes for the Rest of Your Life

You get to design your own life after I die. So don’t feel compelled to follow any of the plans or advice that I give.

That being said, I hope you find and pursue work that you truly enjoy and are passionate about. I know teaching is an underappreciated and underpaid profession, but you have a gift and I encourage you to continue sharing that with the world.

I hope you spend and enjoy all of our money. Please don’t feel bad about treating yourself, living comfortably, and giving as much as you can to others.

Love you so much,

Joel

PS: If and when you are ready to start dating again, there’s a dating app — FireDating.Me — where you might be able to find another personal finance nerd to date! Just don’t get remarried before you turn 60, or else you’ll forfeit my Social Security survivor benefits! (Actually, never mind, you’ll be FI long before then anyway and won’t need that money.)

*****

Well, there you have it. That’s my starting point and I’ll build from here.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to go cry my eyes out and hug my wifey for 100 hours.

Cheers!

– Joel

Any of you readers created a letter like this with a financial roadmap for your spouse or heirs? Care to share some stuff that you included — and perhaps things I’ve missed in mine?

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30 Comments

  1. J. Money September 24, 2021 at 5:47 AM

    Love this. Especially the PS! lol…

    Hopefully I get to meet you in person before the sharks die, but if not i’ll be sure to attend that epic party in your honor ;)

    Reply
    1. Joel September 25, 2021 at 1:42 PM

      Haha ok, I’ll add a side note… “Wifey, don’t forget to invite J$ to the funeral/afterparty. And tell him to find another worthy sole to carry the BAS torch – because this blog needs to live FOREVER.”

      Reply
  2. Liz September 24, 2021 at 7:19 AM

    After a scare a few years ago, my dad consolidated a bunch of checking, credit card and investment accounts. Consider doing an evaluation every once in a while for yourself. I know you open credit cards and bank accounts for the rewards. As you note in the letter, closing ones with $0 balance is a good idea. I think of what dad did as a HUGE gift to us kids. No getting dinged for a card we didn’t know about, or a surprise at tax time for a retirement account he hadn’t thought about in years, but we didn’t claim and the IRS thinks we’re trying to hide.

    The other consideration is if you’re alive but not able to manage your finances for a few months. (In escaping the shark you get temporary amnesia!) (Or there are sailboat vloggers (Americans sailing in Australia) & the guy had a ridiculous migraine which turned out to be an benign brain tumor. They can’t sail for a few months as he recovers, between some balance issues and if he smacks his head as it’s healing that’s a bad plan. Big change from sail plan finances to land finances. Plus mooring the boat vs sailing it.)

    Lastly consider writing one of these for the guardians of your kids, when you have / get them. A friend has asked me to help with her kids if anything happens, and I have a list of what banks, but any specific instructions will be with the will, I hope. Consider setting up a trust / trusts to help keep the money out of probate. As someone 18 plus, my dad or mom can list me as a joint owner transfer upon death currently, but if your kids are minors….trusts can be beneficial.

    I know people don’t like to think of death but a few hours doing estate planning, making sure accounts are in both names truly is an amazing gift to your loved ones.

    Reply
    1. Joel September 25, 2021 at 1:36 PM

      Thanks Liz. All great ideas. When we get kids things will start changing a lot!

      Reply
  3. Jess September 24, 2021 at 8:27 AM

    I did this a few years ago as a checklist for my spouse. I believe it has a title that will capture the feeling of the moment: Oh crap, She’s dead! Now what? My kids and spouse have seen it and had a chance to ask questions. I try to keep it up to date.

    It has links to all professionals we use as well as items to do. The first one is: Take a deep breath, it will all be okay.

    Reply
    1. Joel September 25, 2021 at 1:28 PM

      That’s awesome. I like your funny title. Actually, adding some custom humor is nice to lighten the conversation with them while you’re still alive. When I sent this letter to my wife to preview, she couldn’t talk about it after (still hasn’t since). She just cries when thinking about it, which makes me cry too. :(.

      “Everything is going to be OK.” :)

      Reply
  4. Flip September 24, 2021 at 8:33 AM

    One possible change: It may be better to have a spousal transfer on your traditional IRA rather than have the institution convert this to an “inherited IRA.” My understanding (and please correct me otherwise) is that you cannot make Roth conversions from an inherited IRA (even if it’s inherited from a spouse). But you can do so from a spousal transfer. So if future Roth conversions are of any interest (for the purpose of healthcare.gov/lower future taxes), then spousal transfer would be preferable.

    Reply
    1. Joel September 25, 2021 at 1:24 PM

      When I was researching/creating this, I just called my brokers (Fidelity/TD) and asked them “Hey, what happens to xyz account if I die? What should my wife do?”. I didn’t know the spousal transfer was an option for the traditional IRA. That’s great to know – spousal makes a lot of sense!

      Reply
  5. Yaacov September 24, 2021 at 10:29 AM

    I created something exactly like this on 2017, and updated it in 2020 on my blog. However, it’s in Hebrew, so unless someone really wants a link I’ll omit it for now.

    One thing we decided was that if one of us passes away, we want the other one to be FI so that they may choose to stay home with the kids if they want (we have 3 boys 1, 4 ,6). So we bought life insurance for each in the sum of the difference between our current assets and our current FI number. For every 100k our NW increases I call the insurance company and knock off 100k from the insurance.

    Reply
    1. Joel September 25, 2021 at 1:20 PM

      That’s such a smart idea! A handful of people have emailed me saying the same thing. I like how you lower the policy based on your own financial growth. No point in paying extra and having “too much” after.

      Reply
  6. Dragon Guy September 24, 2021 at 11:21 AM

    Thanks for writing this. We have been so, so delinquent in working on estate planning stuff, so this is another remidner to get going on it. I love the concept of simplifying things. Like you, I’ve made things more “complicated” by having way more credit cards and bank accounts than we need (thanks to bonuses). But I enjoy maximizing all of that so I don’t mind having them in place. I always dreaded having to write all the details on how to manage everything, but I like how you basically recommend to close everything.

    I can see how writing a similar letter to family in the event we both die. Just to help make their life easier on dealing with all the accounts, etc.

    Bookmarking this post for when we finally do our estate planning work!

    Reply
    1. Joel September 25, 2021 at 1:18 PM

      Awesome DG! Actually maybe I should do the same… A family letter in case we both die. Since we have no kids, our fam will have a lot to clean up. Even a simple letter with a few directions would help immensely. Let’s get to it!

      Reply
  7. Latestarterfire September 25, 2021 at 2:09 AM

    OMG, Joel, this is so good! I’m crying too!

    I keep putting off estate planning, being single with no dependents but I really need to do my will. It’s definitely on the 2022 thing to complete list. I downloaded the binding death beneficiary from my superannuation fund but haven’t done anything with it.

    Thanks for the reminder.

    And your wife is very lucky to have you look out for her, even from the grave – that is true love, my friend!

    Reply
    1. Joel September 25, 2021 at 1:16 PM

      Thanks dude. I’m the lucky one. My wife is amazing. Same as you – 2022 goal list will include more official planning and wills, etc.

      Reply
  8. Mandy October 6, 2021 at 5:23 PM

    As a single person, it’s one of my greatest fears to die suddenly and then no one knows any of my financial situation/accounts/mortgages/etc. It’s also hard to “assign” someone with that burden (parent, sibling, etc.).

    Any advice for my situation?

    Reply
    1. Joel October 6, 2021 at 5:41 PM

      Hi Mandy, yes I just wrote a new post which I’ll publish soon regarding writing a will. It’s not as hard or complicated as I thought it would be, and will be a HUGE help for the person(s) clean up your finances should you pass away. In a will, you get to name a) how you want your estate divided and b) name *who* you want to be the executor. These two decisions seem to be the cause of most headaches if someone passes without a will, so the first step is putting those in place. More to come on this!

      Reply
  9. SBfire October 7, 2021 at 7:28 PM

    You need a will and an advanced medical directive (I.e. who gets to pull the plug and when) – don’t leave a sh@&$ show for your your family, children, probate, etc – it was on my “to do” list for the last few year and finally got it done – it’s a relief. Although I am a little concerned that your wife would need all these instructions – is she that uninformed / uninterested in your shared finances ? No bueno

    Reply
    1. Joel October 7, 2021 at 7:56 PM

      Great to hear you’ve sorted out your will and living will. Did you use an estate prep software or have a lawyer help? I’m investigating this all now and am siding towards a LegalZoom package.

      Reply
  10. freddy smidlap October 8, 2021 at 10:01 AM

    dude, i’m glad you included the part about the car title. my poor mother in law is going through a shit show right now over that. she’s elderly. spouse died a couple of years ago. insurance was changed but not title (i believe). insurance cancels when they find out without warning. license suspension ensues and it takes a long time to untangle that mess.

    Reply
    1. Joel October 8, 2021 at 10:39 AM

      Dang. And the worst part is the DMV has probably the most frustrating customer service out of all state departments (at least that’s what my experience has been like). Sorry your MIL is going through that mess right now!

      Reply
  11. FreshLifeAdvice October 8, 2021 at 4:18 PM

    It’s admirable how much you and your wife love and appreciate each other. Not only does your outline help your wife in the future, but it also helps everyone reading this as well! There is so much regarding estate planning that I didn’t know about – thank you so much for shedding light on this. Death is so taboo, especially in America – I’m glad you were able to discus it.

    Reply
    1. Joel October 9, 2021 at 9:28 AM

      Next step, getting a will sorted! And maybe even some life insurance?

      Reply
  12. Angie November 5, 2021 at 4:44 PM

    Super creative and practical post. It reminds me I really need to do something like this where I create a financial plan, not just for myself, but for those that might survive me.

    There’s one other place I”ve seen someone writing a “letter” as if they’re dead to their loved ones, and that’s Richard Branson writing letters to his entire family as if he had died, while he was still alive. Quite the serious exercise, but also means that this post is in good company!

    Reply
    1. Joel November 7, 2021 at 11:35 AM

      Cool! I didn’t know Branson did that. Not sure I’d be able to get through that much sadness, but interesting exercise to think about for sure ;)

      Reply
  13. gofi December 21, 2021 at 10:58 AM

    How did you deal with usernames/passwords, 2-step verifications etc of all your accounts?

    Reply
    1. Joel December 21, 2021 at 12:25 PM

      We just use our dogs name for everything to keep it simple.

      KIDDING!! Haha we use a family version of LastPass. Also we set up Google recovery/security verification addresses so trusted members are able to reset our gmail passwords.

      Reply
  14. gofi December 21, 2021 at 6:44 PM

    Awesome, thanks. May be that will be a good topic to elaborate – I’ll google until you do so :)

    Reply
  15. Holly Daley January 9, 2022 at 2:14 PM

    I remembered reading your article months ago and had reason to search for it again as a neighbor’s husband died, no warning, and now 1 yr. later helping her with questions she has . We previously lived in CA and a Trust was in place before my 3rd marriage in 2011. It wasn’t a simple one with his 4 boys. Fast forward – moved to FL. What a difference. Had the Trust updated, a Power of Attorney, Health Care Surrogate, Living Will, “soup to nuts” for $350. And, this was all done with 1 meeting in the attorney’s office. It took 1 month and with Covid, we were able to pick up our Trust Documents without having any other contact. I found our attorney who had a small ad on “Next Door” in the Deltona FL area. He was in Orlando and well worth the 30-minute ride to get this done.

    Reply
    1. Joel January 10, 2022 at 3:27 PM

      Wow — what a deal!!! NextDoor is such a great resource, I never would have thought of that for attorney services. Congrats!!

      Reply

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