You probably never thought much about the passwords unlocking your spouse’s email or the financial accounts he handled. But if an accident, injury, or medical emergency left him unable to tell you himself, you could be in financial trouble.

Imagine not knowing how you’re going to pay the mortgage or your child’s school tuition, let alone the medical bills. That was the situation Chanel Reynolds found herself in when her husband went for a quick bike ride and was hit by a van; he died a week later, never having regained consciousness. Reynolds was trapped in a state of suspended animation, trying to figure out her family’s financial situation but unable to access her husband’s retirement accounts.

Her experience was the impetus for creating the website GetYourS---Together, which advises others on what to do before tragedy strikes. “All of that extra stress and pain could have been avoided with a few hours of organization and follow through,” Reynolds notes.

What's in the 'What If' File

Legal documents, such as a durable power of attorney, health care proxy, and living will, as well as brokerage account numbers and passwords, are some of the pieces of information you’ll want to share with a spouse, trusted family member, lawyer, or accountant. However, they’re not the only items that can impact your assets. Here’s a quick checklist of what should go in your “what if?” file:

  • Legal documents. A signed copy of a durable power of attorney and health care proxy are the “Open, sesame!” that give you access to financial and health information and empower you to make decisions on your loved one’s behalf. A living will, also known as a health directive, is also important, since it clarifies your loved one’s wishes so that you can be assured the decisions you make regarding medical care are the ones he or she would want.
  • Financial 411s. Write down the numbers, contact information, and—most important—the passwords for your bank and/or brokerage accounts, retirement accounts, and life insurance policies. There are ways to do this to minimize the risk that your passwords will fall into the wrong hands.  While you’re at it, review them to confirm that the right people are listed as beneficiaries. A common mistake is to leave a former spouse as the beneficiary of a retirement account after you’ve remarried. 
  • Household resources. Most couples divide up household chores: One person takes charge the electronics, for example, while the other handles the household repairs. Ask each other, “Would you know who to call to blow out the sprinkler system or fix the sump pump?” Your home and car(s) are probably some of your most valuable assets, so it’s a good idea to create a contact list of the people who care for them: the electrician, the plumber, the car repair guy, the furnace maintenance company, and everyone else who helps keep your household running smoothly.
  • People who need to know. Definitely include the name and contact information for your accountant and lawyer, if you have one. You might also want to add a trusted colleague at your spouse’s place of employment or business. 

Conduct your own financial fire drill to identify the holes in your safety net. Have you actually signed the durable power of attorney? Did you note down updated passwords or is that something you’ve been meaning to do? Remember also to inform one or two people you trust where this information can be accessed, if necessary. Reynolds urges, “Should the ground fall out from under your feet—plan now for a softer landing.”