Episode 24 – Estate Planning as a 37-Year-Old Widow with Children

Episode 24 - Estate Planning as a 37-Year-Old Widow with Children by Astra Financial

Many people think about estate planning as something to do in retirement, not something we consider in our 30s or 40s. But if something happens to you or your partner earlier on in life, it’s important to have plans in place.

In my latest podcast, I am joined by my good friend, Sheri. She lost her husband when she was 37 and had small children at home at the time. She had to handle it all – from dealing with her and her kids’ grief, to planning his funeral and considering what her new life meant for her estate planning. She’s going to share her story, wisdom and some really powerful takeaways that hopefully you will start considering,

Nobody wants to think about having their spouse pass away but the reality is that life is uncertain – so we need to prepare for the uncertain as best we can.

Show Notes:

Zena Amundsen (ZA): Hello and welcome back to another round of, “Our Heart of Money Talks”. I’m joined with my good friend, Sheri Lerat . Sheri and I have known each other for years, and we’ve seen each other through the worst of times. Don’t worry, we’ll throw in some good times in there. She lost her husband, Mike in 2017. Today, she is a super busy mom.

She’s the founder and creator of Karys Layne Candles, where she features her online art gallery. Check it out – it’s beautiful. We’re going to have some giggles I’m sure, and maybe some tears. We’ve known each other for a long time, but I want her to share with our listeners today and talk about her estate settling experience.

We’re going to have some takeaways. I know you’re going to have takeaways because these are the things that we don’t think we need to talk about as young people. But when you go through them, you realize in hindsight in 2020, right? Thanks for joining today, Sheri.

Sheri Lerat (SL): Oh, thank you, Zena. It’s like you said, our friendship goes way back. You’ve seen me through all of it, the good times and the bad times. I appreciate you having me on here today. I can’t remember how old my oldest was when we met, like maybe four, but you had just had a baby.

My youngest was I think, around two or three. We bonded over being young moms. I was a little bit older than you, but it was still this new experience. Actually, you are the first person that I talk about if someone asks me how I got my start in finance. I have to back it up to the beginnings of being a bookkeeper up north, where we were posted with our husbands in the shop that did it all. 

Then you are going on maternity leave. I came and that’s actually how we very first met. It was so bizarre, going into this all-in-one shop, thrown on pelts that were going to go to the Winnipeg Hudson Bay for being sold. And I thought, “What is this about?” 

It was antlers on the wall.

ZA: Oh, it was crazy. We have plenty of stories from living up North, but you’re right. That is how we met. Yeah, I believe it was through the highway ends. We keep driving. I have never seen the most amazing Northern Lights as I did up there. And I remember waking up the kids thinking, “You need to see this”, and carrying them out.

They couldn’t care less, but it was beautiful up there. 

We do, we have some history. That’s where I met Mike, your husband. He passed away in 2017 and you were thrown into learning everything about estate planning.

SL: Everything I knew was through clients in our office for estate planning as a financial planner, and it was also through textbooks and this was my first experience of being right there through it all from the phone call, to picking headstones. 

ZA: I’m getting goosebumps and I’m going to tear up. So we’re going to have laughs and tears in this because that’s just the way good friends rehash share a little bit about your story.

 SL: Okay, where do I begin?

So I’ll give you just a real quick backstory. I met Mike when I was 21. Instantly we hit it off and started planning our life together. He felt like home. We met in Alberta. We were both going to school there and he got accepted into the RCMP.

So we had a little bit of a long-distance relationship while he was training. And then he got his first posting and I had to make the decision. So I moved up North with him and our life began up there. We had our daughter shortly after and our wedding. and within a year we were living down south.

Again, we had a mortgage under our belt and whatnot, so life was happening very fast. We were just instant grownups, but you know what? It was fun. It was easy. And it just felt like home. We were young. I was 24 when I got married and by then, had a mortgage and all that stuff.

Yeah, naive going into adulthood, and how all these responsibilities. We ended up having another child a couple of years later. And we had a normal, happy life. I was a stay-at-home mom for 10 years. It was important for both of us that I stay home.

Then when the kids were both in school, I went back to school and got my second degree and became a teacher. So I actually didn’t start working until both of my kids were in school. I had been working just for a few years before Mike ended up getting sick and he was diagnosed with PTSD through his work, which kind of led into the second, I guess almost feels like the second chapter of my life.

I never dreamed I was going to be a widow at 37, with two kids. Our oldest was in one month into grade nine, so she was 14 at the time. I can’t imagine how tough that’s been on her. So I feel like my life has been almost split in two, in that sense. 

Going back to the days you were talking about with the estate, honestly, Zena, I remember so little from those days that you probably have a better memory than I do at this point.

It was a fog, I would say the first six months were an absolute fog. We have an estate binder, you have one, we made copies and I have one and it is so thick. I remember we would sit down and we’d do our coffee and we’d be like, “Okay, pull out the binder. What’s next on the list? It had the phone numbers and it was all the follow-up.

It was a part-time job for you. 

ZA: It was when your brain wasn’t really there. 

SL: That was one thing I wanted to speak to as well, is the importance of having your paperwork. And we’ll talk a little bit more about that. I know, but also having somebody that you trust who can help you when it comes time, heaven forbid you actually have to deal with any of that, because I know in those days you were an absolute lifesaver for me.

It’s having that second person, it’s that emergency contact to have someone with ears to hear what you’re not hearing.

And then you do this debrief after about what you both think the takeaway was of a conversation. It’s so important. It’s no different than healthcare and having someone there to help out with that.

ZA: There’s a couple of takeaways, there’s a few big ones. First of all, congratulations because you and Mike did the grownup thing in that you guys did have a will, right?

You realized, “Oh shoot, we’re adults with kids. We should probably do some things like insurance.” 

These are the things that we put off and they’re the hardest things to tackle as you get older. 

SL: It’s interesting because. We didn’t have a will right off the bat. We didn’t do those grownup things right off the bat.

I didn’t know any of our friends that were doing that kind of stuff. It certainly wasn’t what we were talking about when we got together for a barbecue or whatever we would do. It was never something that was in our minds at all of do we have everything taken care of?

You’re just so busy living life. And to be honest, I was a stay-at-home mom. We were going on the holidays, like other people we didn’t have, a lot of extra money to put aside into life insurance. It just wasn’t something that we had put a lot of thought into in our twenties.

ZA: In my practice, I forget how special it is in our bubble and with our community because people bring their adult children in. I’ve sat across from 18, 19-year-olds setting up accounts in 2021, and then bringing in their partners or seeing a couple of girlfriends and boyfriends before they actually make the plunge so there’s guidance there.

These are some things you should think about. 

ZA: When we grew up and we’ve talked about this before over many glasses of wine and nachos, when we grew up, nobody did that for us. And I don’t know how common it is. I take it for granted. 

SL: Yeah, I agree. Mike and I just figured it out as we went. It was one of those things where we were in our early thirties and we had two kids and it hit me that my mom had been diagnosed with an illness in her mid-thirties.

It just really made me think. I was approaching that age and that she was, when I was younger, I was 14 when she was diagnosed. I thought she was so old. All of a sudden I’m now in my early thirties, too. So it was just the perspective of it all, but I still felt too young, even to have that conversation with Mike. 

I was the one that brought it up that, maybe we should think about it because of your past experience with family members and my mom. All of a sudden, I just kind of thought about it one day and it wasn’t hard to get drawn up by any means, but it was just the reality of actually, no one wants to have those conversations.

What happens to you or what happens to your kids when you’re not? The biggest hangup for us was, who was going to look after the kids. And I think a year went by because it was like we couldn’t decide. And so those are the tough questions and there’s a lot to think about with kids.

It’s finances, trust funds, and other things depending on the ages of your kids. They’re difficult topics to talk about. So we were a little bit later in life when we made that move in adulthood. 

Talk about feeling like you feel like an adult when you have a will, right?

ZA: Oh, and I have a little bit of insight. When you talked about it, you were in a haze for six months, there. We couldn’t find the original will. And so I remember asking you, “Okay, where should I start looking?” 

You said, “Oh, upstairs in the filing cabinet, it’s got to be there.” 

And I’m sure it was the last thing on your mind because you had other things to take care of with the funeral and everything.

So I’m up there going through this filing cabinet and I can’t find it. And I’m like, “Oh boy. Okay. Where else do you think it is?” 

And you’re in a daze. Days went by. We couldn’t find the original will. I’m panicking because I’m thinking, “Okay, we need to find a will.” 

So I remember, shuffling behind you trying to get your attention because you were rightly so preoccupied. I said, “Do you remember a lawyer’s name?” 

You rattled off names, so I called the lawyer’s office and they said, “No they took all the copies. We don’t have any copies here.”

There were days that went by with panic and I didn’t want to panic you eventually in talking to one of my best friends.

He goes, “You know what I think his office might have it. It might be somewhere in an envelope at the office.” 

They do that. You can keep, I didn’t know that. Nobody ever talked to us about where you keep these wills, where it should be kept, but yeah, we eventually tracked it down, but there was some serious panic there for a while.

And so telling someone where it is and thank goodness somebody down the chain knew. 

SL: Yeah. And even with that, because we were with the RCMP and we moved around, we thought that would be the safest place would be to keep it right at his work with all the other important documents, but it just goes to show.

So at that moment, I didn’t know. I didn’t know. If it wasn’t in a spot, it just completely slipped my mind as to the fact that we had decided to keep it there. But yeah. Thank goodness. Thank goodness. Mike’s friends are so involved., Oh my gosh, they were so amazing during those days that I definitely do not take for granted for one second, but thank goodness people were helping and looking out and being part of the conversations.

It is so funny because if we asked that best friend before, he probably was like, “It’s here.”

Then I wouldn’t have had a couple of days of panic because it was supposed to be right there. But they also couldn’t. It took a little while for them to find it. So it’s so funny because we’ve never actually sat down and said, “So how many days were you?”

It was a good three or four days for you to keep it in a safe. But yeah, maybe not Tuesday. 

So it’s still accessible having in our office here, we have a binder and it’s the everything binder, and it’s where it’s an organizational binder, but it’s about telling someone where this is, so that in those moments, it’s not like pulling teeth and you’re shuffling behind asking those questions. 

Then, Mike also had insurance through his employer. Most people will have employer insurance. So if you work for major organizations or institutions or crowns or federal or provincial governments, you’re going to have insurance just through work that you probably see come off your paycheck. 

Sometimes it says right there, life or group benefits, and it’s very cheap, but did you guys know you have that? What’s the cause? I have my personal story because her husband’s worked for the same organization and it’s, there’s a base level, minimum amount.

I remember it was after we’d been in for a few years and the kids, it was like water cooler talk. “Oh did you top it up? Do you have the maximum? I don’t know.”

And I remember pushing to say, “Oh, you need to go find this out. Do you remember that? 

SL: Yeah, I remember in the early days Mike had the base, he started as a single man technically right in the RCMP.

Then as the years went on and we became a family, I remember him bringing paperwork home. He didn’t normally bring a lot of that stuff and would just stay at the office. And I remember him this one time bringing paperwork home, and he just said, “You might want to have a look over this.” 

I was the one that looked after most of that stuff. It wasn’t really typical for him to even do that. I’m so thankful he did because that was when I was like, “Oh, you’re not this isn’t just base insurance anymore. You’re not a single man. You actually are married with a child.”

It was as simple as, checking off the box, sending in whatever paperwork he had to do to follow up on it. I don’t even know if he had to do anything official at that point, he didn’t always bring that paperwork home and then things went electronic and digital. 

So then it was all in the systems and stuff. But we were young, we’re in our twenties.

You’re not thinking you’re ever going to need all of these boxes you’re checking. I think we learned literally water cooler, talk of them at work and work talk and everything they learned. There was also this myth that went around about payout amounts if a member had died.

And I know it’s those light conversations. I think that friends have briefly or coworkers have briefly, but nobody actually thinks about it. It just feels like that’s the adult thing to do, but you’re doing it. We were young, we were in our twenties and it felt like the adult thing to do. But it felt I don’t want to say silly, but it felt right.

We joked about it, but it was kind of a joke during those coffee talks with our spouses and it was, and then you don’t take it seriously. So I think, I actually think the time to do all that is when it is lighthearted, because after the fact is not like it’s horrendous. 

And so it is doing it while things are positive, while it feels like it’ll never happen. These are the times that we have to do those checks well – when you actually have the time and time. All that fine print that you think is not important. That, at 37, I certainly didn’t know it would have mattered.

But like I say, thank goodness we did do that, but that would be a big takeaway for your listeners is about all the work benefits. You can never do it too soon or too early, you’re never too young. 

ZA: So there are our takeaways, having everything organized, letting someone know where they are.

SL: Yes, which you could speak to probably better than me. That’s personal note crap. I have to be honest, you did a really good job of carrying that burden because I was so busy with everything else that I wasn’t even thinking of that type of stuff. 

ZA: And so you shouldn’t. 

SL: Yeah. And that’s why having support is so important. That would be another takeaway is knowing ahead of time, who you can count on. Who’s going to be there and maybe even talking to them about it once again, when things are light and not needed.

ZA: And having that organized will. That’s huge. By law, things will pass over to a spouse, but boy, is it a lot harder if there isn’t a will. 

SL: Yeah, that’s important. I found that was a learning curve for me, in the sense that I never thought of a will for any other reason than if Mike and I were to both die, something would happen to our kids, and that was the only real reason it was just protection for our kids. 

I actually didn’t realize how important it is even for the spouse. In terms of just simplifying these, because again, that wasn’t the spirit. It was to make sure our kids were okay if something happened to us.

So it’s almost a gift to them, to surviving family members in doing the will, because, I won’t need a will if I were to pass away, but it’s my family that will find that and say, “Oh, wow.”

ZA: Thanks, Sheri for today, those are huge takeaways for now that I really just wanted to share.

SL: And thank you for sharing your experience and having me on. We love catching up. It’s always good to have a chat with you. We have a lot of laughs and a lot of tears. Lots of history. 

ZA: Yep. Love you. Thank you.