Till Death Us Do Part

Lewis Walker |


While wedding customs and traditions vary from religion to religion and in  secular society, vows generally are a significant and meaningful aspect of the joining of two persons in matrimony. Among the most well-known traditional wedding vows are those derived from medieval England. In the Book of Common Prayer by Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, we find couples promising each other “to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death us do part.” That promise is a contract whereby the two people in the union pledge to share responsibilities.

A financial life planning plan recognizes the shared goals of prospering from a wealth and health standpoint, while providing for eventualities stemming from injury and illness, and the death of a partner and oneself. Life together is a series of transitions, some planned and some forced by circumstances. After the honeymoon reality eventually settles in, wrapped in a blanket of mutual support and respect.

People depend on you. In addition to your spouse, these dependents may be children, other family members and loved ones, dear friends.  Depending on what you do for a living, they may be associates, partners, employees, members of the military, teammates, clients and customers. Community organizations, charities, and religious institutions depend on your support. As does everyone, you likewise depend on others for important aspects of your well-being. Do you and your significant other have plans in place to handle whatever life throws at you?

How you navigate the challenges of life as a team is a function of alternatives, resources, and expectations. How will you tackle challenges connected with health and wealth? Remember the part about richer or poorer, in sickness and health? Often the pledge, “till death us do part,” generates a fear of a “life insurance sales pitch,” but it goes beyond that one aspect of “What if?” planning.

On October 6, 2022, a memorial Mass was held for the beloved spouses of the Saint Brigid Catholic Church Widowed Group in Johns Creek, Georgia. The Mass program listed the names of the departed, which sadly included my spouse of 55 years who passed away recently. Of the dearly departed noted, 23% were female, 77% were male. That’s a small sample but it illustrates the fact that on average women outlive men. Widows outnumber widowers by substantial margins. Susan Bradley, CFP, founder of the Sudden Money Institute in Florida, focuses on major life transitions, including the difficulties involved in being a caregiver and life after the death of a spouse or other loved one. She notes that 80% of men die married. Eighty percent of women die single. Have you prepared for the likelihood that one of you will outlive the other? One of you will die before the other?

While death can come suddenly at any point in a marriage, you must prepare for the possibility of illness, incapacity, and struggle prior to death regardless of age. Severe illness or incapacity may not result in death but engender a life transition toward some form of “new normal” that may involve ongoing physical or mental limitations.   

When it comes to money and reserves pertinent to emergencies, and overall wealth, do you have a written Investment Policy Statement for your money that is clear to you, your spouse, whoever else who may have to step in, and your advisors? Decisions regarding finances and the management of key assets are best made when you are mentally sharp, not in the face of decline, denial, and confusion. Are you reasonably certain that your bank balance will not go to zero before your heartbeat does? If you had a stroke or were otherwise impaired, and your spouse or partner was not available to act, who would get the emergency phone call?

Who has the authority to act in your behalf if you were incapacitated? Who has Durable Powers of Attorney to act for you in financial, business, medical, and other matters? When did you last review these documents? Are they current? Do you have backup if the primary designee cannot act? Have you discussed your wishes with your family? What would be the economic impact on those who depend on you given prolonged incapacity? The latter question is important to closely-held business owners. What would be the economic impact on your “business family,” your employees and key associates? What would be the impact on your family if your enterprise is the primary engine for family cash flow and wealth accumulation?

If you were permanently incapacitated, what would you want done regarding your investments, business interests, real estate, your treasured “stuff,” pets, your health care? What do you want done at your death regarding the above? What do you want relative to funeral and burial arrangements? If you’re a military veteran, do you understand your benefits? Where is Form DD-214? Have you had a discussion with your family about such matters? If an adult child has to step in, what does she or he know?

Do you understand your actual living and testamentary estate plan, which may be very different from the one you think you have? Wills, trusts, ownership forms, beneficiary designations, operating agreements for a closely-held business, or other legal documents may govern what happens. Insurance contracts, including life, health, disability, liability, and property and casualty, are pertinent to funding in emergency situations. When did you last undergo an in-depth review of all documents critical to “What if?” eventualities?

The answers to these questions form the basis for a holistic and comprehensive financial, estate, investment, life transitions, and “peace of mind” plan. Winston Churchill warned, “He [she] who fails to plan is planning to fail.” “Failure to plan” is a decision, but not one likely to make you, or those who love you and depend on you, happy.