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Mary Owens: Estate planning goes beyond paperwork

Several years ago, I attended a funeral for Harry, a longtime good friend. He was an avid gardener and his home appeared like a prize-winning garden show. His yard was always immaculately cared for with attention to the smallest details. His rose beds were organized by color and blooming season. His vegetable garden was planted with various crops on a rotation schedule so something yummy was just reaching its peak of ripeness. I remember the first time he gave me a personal garden tour. Being a retired engineer, he designed the infrastructure in a manner that was efficient but still somewhat complicated to an untrained observer. He had a multitude of water pressure regulators and watering timers, all coordinated off his cell phone. He demonstrated his iPhone operational system to me while we enjoyed a cool glass of homemade lemonade while sitting on his deck. It was all very impressive and fun.

When Harry unexpectedly passed away, his wife Susie decided she wanted to have the memorial service in their back yard. They had a very large lawn that could hold the guests and a sitting area next to a large koi pond. What could be a better place for friends to say their goodbyes and remember him?

I agreed to arrive several hours early to help Susie set things up before the service, but when I arrived, Susie was frantic and in tears. She sobbed, “Mary! I had no idea how much stuff Harry controlled with his passwords! I am trying to get the gate to stay open because I didn’t want everyone to have to walk down the gravel driveway. The main controller is on his cell phone. It will not let me change the auto close without his password. I already set the alarm off accidentally and the alarm company wanted a security word, but I didn’t know it. They would not turn off the alarm until the police arrived and gave an all clear. Then I fed the koi too much food and it clogged the filter, so the water pump thought it was low on water and turned on, flooding the area around the pond. My neighbors say the pump appears to be controlled by Wi-Fi so it must be on his cell phone too. Please help me figure this out. Things keep going wrong!”



Those who know me well know I am not the most techie person. I can handle basic applications but learning them on the fly in a hurry is not my skill set. I reluctantly took the cell phone and sat down to figure out what was being controlled by it. At least she had the password to his cell phone but that is where is ended. After looking at it a while I discovered many crucial items of control resided on the device and Susie did not know even one password. Such things as outside lightening, the gate to their home, the alarm system, the heating and air conditioning, the security camera, their schedule for their pet’s medications, their auto refill orders for many supplies around the house, the pool pumps, filters, and more. It was going to be a nightmare to try and reset all these passwords and get them organized. I decided I would start by trying to reset the water pump to the koi pond first. That took almost forty-five minutes, but I managed to stop the water pump from flooding a portion of the back yard. Fortunately, a very tech inclined neighbor showed up and took over the cell phone decryption tasks.

As more helpers arrived, we moved the chairs and food table out of the flooded areas. Finally, the work was done, and the yard looked presentable again as the guests arrived. People were taking their seats and the service began. The first comments were all about how heavenly Harry’s garden was and how happy he would be that we could all see it now. But then it struck – the sprinklers came on in the lawn area. People went running in all directions. And of course, the food was moved from the flooded koi pond area to the lawn as well. Susie’s neighbor desperately fumbled with Harry’s phone. There was no place to go until the sprinklers turned themselves off. Everyone was soaked. We all tried to laugh about it as Harry’s last joke, but poor Susie just sat and sobbed. It was simply too much. She did not find anything about the day humorous.




When discussing estate planning with clients, I frequently see so much emotional peace being projected because “we have all our documents done and in order.” Documents are vital and they should and must get done to avoid unnecessary headaches. But full estate planning goes well beyond just the paperwork. It should include a full inventory of all the tasks done by each member of the household so that essential responsibilities are still able to be met in each other’s absence. If you add a password void to the problem, your passing could become a literal nightmare for the ill-informed survivors.

There is a way for the “password keepers” to create sanity in your family. Several apps are available on cell phones that are designed specifically for keeping login information, passwords, answers to security questions and more. My favorite is 1Password. Get the app installed on your cell phone, enter in all your critical data, and share both your cell phone password AND the login information of your 1Password account. In an emergency, the app can be accessed on other devices as well.

Think about all the logins you have right now that would be imperative for your support network to know if they are assisting you during a crisis: bill pay, e-bills that do not send out statements in the mail, prescriptions refills, watering systems, temperature controls, alarms, bank account access, brokerage account logins, and so much more. I have over one hundred logins safely tucked away in my password vault that my husband can access when needed.

Show your loved ones that you care about their stress levels. Get your passwords and other key data in a software app and show your family or trusted friends how to access it right away. Harry’s passing was sudden, his memorial did not turn out as he would have preferred, and the care of his beloved garden would not have been possible without access to his passwords.

Mary Owens, Founder, Owens Estate & Wealth Strategies Group, Financial Advisor, RJFS, 426 Sutton Way, Suite 110, Grass Valley, CA 95945, 530-272-7500. Securities offered through Raymond James Financial Services, Inc., Member FINRA/SIPC. Owens Estate and Wealth Strategies Group is not a registered broker/dealer and is independent of Raymond James Financial Services.


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