I first met Beryl, a woman in her 60s and a new tax client, about a year after her husband, George, died. We sat at her dining table amidst a sea of papers and prior years’ tax returns. She had a wonderfully dry, self-deprecating sense of humour and she had me hooked within the first five minutes. It was impossible not to like this woman and want to help her out.
As we were reviewing her documents, she mentioned, out of the blue, that when George died, she didn’t even know how to write a cheque. This was at a time when cheques were used to pay most bills. Anything at all related to household finances or investments had been looked after by her husband. Beryl and George never discussed their finances with each other. She looked after their house, and he looked after their money. That was just the way it was done.
Why do I remember this woman and her story so well after all these years? Was it the fact that Beryl knew virtually nothing at all about managing money? No, it wasn’t. Their marital separation of duties was, sadly, not unusual back then. What makes this story stand out from the others, for me, was that George hadn’t died suddenly, as I had originally assumed. How else, I thought, would Beryl have not known how to write a cheque?
As it turned out, Beryl’s husband had died of cancer after a year long battle. He had kept his illness to himself and, by the time it became obvious that something was horribly wrong, it was too late. He died within days of Beryl learning of his illness. My first thought was how terrible this must have been for them both. George had suffered in silence, and Beryl had to deal with losing her husband within days of discovering that he was ill. It was a tragedy.
But I also wondered why George never discussed with Beryl some of the most basic elements of managing her finances. Presumably, he did not want to suggest to her that anything was wrong. Maybe he felt that she wouldn’t be interested in the topic. But, for whatever reason, he chose not to include his wife in the management of their household finances.
In this instance, George knew he was dying and could have taught Beryl the basics of financial management, if he so desired, before he passed away. Generally, life’s not like that. Death, or incapacity, can come at a moment’s notice. And, unlike the movies, there is no background music to forewarn us that something bad is about to happen.
I’ll have more in future blog posts about some of the better practices in the management of family finances. But, for now, please take the lesson of Beryl and George to heart and don’t leave your significant other in the dark when it comes to your finances.