Mary Kelly, an economist who teaches at the Air Force Academy, adopted her avocation of advising people on how to organize files and handle legal papers after her own husband's death.
"I knew where our documents were, and I handled the finances. The only surprise came when I found out that he had never changed his life insurance beneficiary from when he was 21 — and it named the woman he was dating in 1972," Kelly says, adding, "Yes, she kept the money."
Kelly decided to put together information that would help her friends navigate the tricky world after a loved one dies. For Life Goes Strong, Kelly enumerates key things people neglect to do.
Update Your Beneficiaries Not surprisingly, number one on her hit list of mistakes people commonly make is failing to update beneficiaries. So double check your IRAs, insurance policies, 401(k)s – anything that has a beneficiary.
Check on Company-Issued Benefits Kelly says, "Let's say you go to work for a company and they say, 'Here's your life insurance policy.' You work there 15 years, and over that time, the provider of the policy changes.'" If you don't check on this periodically, the paperwork you leave your loved ones may show the initial insurance company. If your heirs call that company, they'll say they don't have a policy on you. "A lot of money goes unclaimed that way," Kelly says, noting that "After people retire there can still be a benefit." Keep in touch and make a list of current policies with providers and phone numbers for your heirs.
Know Whether Your Credit Card Company Insures You "Many credit card companies have a thousand dollar rider on cardholders," Kelly says, recommending you call and see if you're one of the lucky ones. If so, make sure they know who your beneficiary is, and leave a record of it so your family will know to collect when the time comes.
Keep a Master List of Passwords "I have over 150 places I go that require a password," Kelly says. You need to keep a list (there's a free passwords list form on Kelly's website). "You need a list, and it needs to be somewhere people know about," Kelly says.
If you don't, it can be a challenge just getting into your computer. "Many people don't get paper statements anymore. Their heirs don't know how bills are being paid, and money disappears from the accounts with automatic payments — could be maintenance fee, the utility company, cellphone usage, insurance premiums, or even a Netflix subscription. Kelly advises people to go through at least three months of mail, piece by piece, too, to catch any statements that are issued quarterly.
Kelly offers a variety of products and books on her website. The proceeds (not just the profits) from anyone buying them go directly to charities Kelly has chosen – no-kill animal rescues and a foundation that runs orphanages in Southeast Asia. She also talk to groups about organization of documents without accepting a speaker's fee. Kelly describes her own reward this way: "I was in a strip mall the other day, and a woman came up to me saying, "After I heard you speak, my husband and I spent six hours organizing our affairs. We got everything out on the dining room table and now it's done." If you don't do this, Kelly warns, you'll wind up in court, in lawyers's office, which is neither efficient nor cheap.