Monday, December 4, 2017

Leaving a Spouse to Pick up the Pieces

I’ve been helping an elderly relative sort out her finances and other matters since her husband died. I’ll call them Carol and Bob. This experience has made it very clear to me that both spouses need to at least be able to locate a record of account numbers and institutions, including banks, insurance companies, and utilities.

For the first year or so after Bob’s death, a friend of Carol’s tried to help. They found a few paper bank statements, and wandered into branches asking for help locating all accounts. They were ultimately able to find several accounts and were able to get some of Bob’s accounts into Carol’s name.

By the time I took over, I still had to get one of Bob’s TFSAs into Carol’s name, cancel some of Bob’s monthly automatic bank account payments, and get titles on the house and car fixed. It’s been months now and this is still ongoing.

Of course, there have been many other things to sort out, but the most painful tasks involve doing battle with large organizations like banks, insurance companies, and the government.

One outstanding item is a joint investment account at BMO Nesbitt Burns. The only records I have show it holding about $40k a year before Bob’s death. I have no record of its contents being transferred anywhere, but Carol isn’t getting any more account statements mailed to her. After a frustrating series of calls to BMO Nesbitt Burns, I found out they consolidated small accounts into a lower-service arm of the company. After that the trail went cold and all promises to call back with information have been broken. So, either Bob cleaned out this account shortly before he died, or it still exists somewhere but only has online statements. It’s very frustrating that BMO Nesbitt Burns is unwilling to tell Carol whether the account still exists. Given Carol’s modest income and bank account balances, she could really use the money.

Update: A helpful reader who works at BMO put me in touch with a manager at BMO Nesbitt Burns who tracked down what happened to the account (it went to another bank).  This story ends happily.

A lot of pain could have been avoided if Bob had either made Carol pay attention to the finances, or had at least left an up-to-date list of institutions, account numbers, and other contact information.


  1. Just a question on what is required for the name transfers.
    Death Certificate, Will, Marriage Certificate(? is this needed?).

    1. @aB: For the house I got a lawyer. He just needed the death certificate because the house is held jointly with right of survivorship. For the bank accounts, each bank was different. None of the amounts was very large, so the death certificate plus signed copies of Bob's will sufficed after many meetings. There is still one account where they claim all is well, but they need more time. I wasn't involved in transferring two accounts, so I'm not certain what was needed in those cases. I'm still working on the car. Car and house insurance companies seemed happy to deal with Carol, but that was likely because the coverages were joint.

    2. Thanks for the information.

  2. I agree completely that both partners should be fully aware of all of the accounts, how to get into them, etc. As much as possible (not TFSAs for e.g.) they should often be held as joint accounts, and any vehicles and homes should be held jointly. It's far easier if you don't need to transfer the assets especially during the emotional crisis of losing a life partner.

    Another big plus, if possible, is to educate whoever has the Power of Attorney for finances if both partners become incapacitated about where the accounts are and where the bills are. We have all that info for some relatives and it will make it much, much easier if we suddenly have to step in to manage their finances.

    Congrats on your (early) retirement!

    1. @Bet Crooks: Thanks. I've heard from experts that it can be nearly impossible to get some spouses to pay any attention to the finances, so it makes a lot of sense to put all the information in a letter. Making sure the POA knows the information or at least can get the letter is a good idea.