No matter how it hits – fast and furious like an earthquake or painstakingly slow like a hurricane – the death of a spouse, partner, child or parent is an earth-shattering experience. It’s imperative you prepare for the inevitable.

As a professional organizer, I work closely with widows/widowers and their children and know all too well the realities of what happens when you’re not organized and don’t plan in advance for the inevitable. The time to plan for that future is now, not later.

Surround yourself with a team of experts

One of the most important lessons my father taught me, my siblings and our mother, was to surround ourselves with a team of experts, including lawyers, accountants and financial advisors, and to make sure our “team” communicated with one another.

Establish your own line of credit

Far too many women in a relationship have not established their own line of credit, for those women, it is imperative they think about the “what if’s” and prepare for the future. Be proactive. Get a checking account in your name and apply for a credit card in your name. Change the “primary” account holder on all household utility accounts to your name. Set-up auto-pay using your new credit card as the preferred means of payment; any bills not payable with a credit card should be paid from your checking account.

Live within your means

I work with couples all the time that live beyond their means. The husbands want to please their wives so they borrow against margin, or worse, against the equity on their home, so the wives foolishly assume there’s money in the bank. It’s imperative you live within your means and know what those ‘means’ are. Protect yourself by asking the hard questions (see sidebar.)

Pay attention

Can you imagine your husband dying of a heart attack and leaving you with exactly $164.28 in your joint checking account? Now imagine your husband leaving you with not one, but two “second” mortgages you didn’t know existed; mountains of credit card debt; a litany of creditors to be paid and two mistresses, both of whom are coming after you for their “fair” share. This is a true story. Unfortunately, the wife, like many women, still considered tasks, such as bill paying, to be the man’s job. Be smart and pay attention to the “signs.”

The control factor

I know a woman, who, when clearing out her husband’s closet, discovered more than 65 credit cards in his name. Luckily, most of the cards were inactive and there was no identity theft, but to be on the safe side, we called each of the card companies before notifying the three major credit bureaus of her husband’s death.

I’ll never forget what she said as we were making the calls: “I know my husband loved me and always had my best interests in mind, but by not teaching me about our financial assets, he had control over my life. I should have asked questions and taken responsibility for my own life.” It’s your right to know.

Ignorance is not bliss

There is absolutely no excuse for not knowing what’s going on. The death of a loved one is devastating enough. Familiarize yourself with the finances, budget and paperwork and get organized before it’s too late.

Your children can’t or don’t want to help

Unfortunately, most widows, when faced with the daunting task of taking over bill-paying, are afraid to ask their children for help, feeling too embarrassed to admit they never took the time to learn how to manage on their own. It’s also unfortunate most adult children don’t have the proclivity or patience to help. So what happens? The mail goes unanswered; bills pile up; checks bounce; Social Security and healthcare benefits get compromised; insurance policies get canceled; mortgages, credit cards and taxes aren’t paid; homes are foreclosed upon; cars are repossessed and just when you think things can’t get worse, the widowed parent starts making uneducated decisions and trusting the wrong people. Plan now to avoid unnecessary pain later.

[Sidebar: 160 words] Get organized, ask questions

  • Whose name is on the title to your home?
  • How many credit cards and/or bank accounts do you and your spouse have?
  • Where and how is your money invested?
  • Where does your income come from?
  • What are your expenses?
  • How are the bills paid?
  • How much money do you really have? Is it enough to live on should your partner die?
  • Do you own or lease your automobiles?
  • Is your spouse paying off a loan you didn’t know existed?
  • Do you have access to a complete list of passwords, user names and security questions?
  • Is your estate plan in order?
  • Do you have a current Will? Trust? Durable Power of Attorney? Healthcare Surrogate?
  • Do you thoroughly understand the terms of these documents?
  • Is your spouse supporting one or more of his or your children? Are you prepared to continue this arrangement should your spouse die?

If you don’t ask, you won’t know…until it’s too late.