It’s November. We are nine months into the pandemic, and many of us are still spending a significant amount of time at home. We’ve baked bread, cleaned out our closets, and tended our gardens. But while your living space may be tidier than it has been in years, how neat are your financial affairs? Sure, you’re watching what’s happening in the stock markets, bemoaning your low-interest savings accounts, and maybe considering refinancing a loan. But have you addressed your financial life to ensure that no harm is done against your family? How do you even know what may lie hidden in the future? Are you making the gigantic mistake almost everyone makes: focusing on one limited area of your financial plan, usually your portfolio, and neglecting other areas of your financial life?
In reality, there are other things that can be far more damaging to your well-being than missing a few basis points of performance. The great advisor knows that your portfolio is one small sliver of a larger group of strategies and decisions that need to be carefully assessed, then navigated thoroughly.
The aviation industry uses preflight checklists to ensure that pilots consider potential dangers. The checklists include all the tasks that need to be completed prior to takeoff. The purpose is to make sure that no important safety measures are forgotten.
I have applied this concept to my financial advisory practice. It has worked to help protect all my clients from losing wealth through identity fraud, hacking, and overpaying taxes. Equally important is that it has saved family members hours of time and enormous stress when trying to find the passwords, account numbers, and contact information needed to manage finances at times of illness or death. In my experience, there are three common yet easily fixed mistakes that many people make.
Mistake #1: Weak Cybersecurity
You’ve heard it a million times: passwords should be strong; don’t use the same username and password across multiple websites and applications; and be cautious when opening emails and texts from unknown senders. But there are other ways to reduce your exposure to identity theft, online scams, malware, and fraud.
Protection at Home
Keep your software, operating system, and browsers up to date. Security updates are included with most upgrades, and reputable antivirus products can inoculate your devices against malware. Check that your email provider includes security features in its service.
Protection Away from Home
You should avoid the use of public Wi-Fi to limit possible hacking. However, if you must use public Wi-Fi hotspots (coffee shops, airports, hotels, etc.), be sure to use a virtual private network (VPN) or use your mobile network to create a personal Wi-Fi hotspot with your phone.
Don’t use publicly available charging cords or USB ports. They can deliver malware onto or steal data from your phone. Power outlets are generally fine, but don’t use someone else’s cord or port.
Think twice, then a third time before you share any personal information over the phone, in email or via text message—especially if you did not initiate the contact.
Use a password manager. These apps create unique, complex passwords for you and encrypt those passwords to store them safely. You can also set up multi-factor authentication (MFA) to log in to any website or application that you use for financial transactions or that contains your personal data. Morgan Stanley has some great MFA options.
Create bookmarks for the important banking and brokerage websites that you visit often to avoid inadvertently entering your credentials on a fraudulent site and exposing yourself to identity theft.
Change your home network (Wi-Fi) router’s factory-default username and password to something private.
Protect What You Share
Limit what you share on social media, and lock down the privacy settings on your accounts. The more information you put out there, the more easily someone can gather that information for fraud schemes, like calling you and pretending to be a family member who needs money wired somewhere.
Load apps only from a reputable source like Google Play™ or the App Store® and give applications only the permissions they really need. The more times you grant access to your photos, location, camera, and contacts, the more you undermine your privacy.
Most importantly, monitor your existing lines of credit for fraudulent activity by leveraging one of the reputable credit and identity theft monitoring services.
Mistake #2: Avoiding Estate Planning
One of my clients was going into the hospital. Before she was admitted, we went through my Standard of Care Checklist and realized that her power of attorney was stored with her lawyer, who was deceased. We tracked down the law firm, got the document, found that it was unsigned, and fixed the problem. Because of my checklist, we were prepared; we had all the necessary documents in hand in case they were needed.
My Standard of Care Checklist is what I use to ensure that clients get my best thinking, nothing is overlooked, and they are properly prepared for challenges and opportunities at each stage of their lives.
Here are some of the items you can consider for yourself:
- Do you have an advance medical directive and durable power of attorney for medical and financial decisions for adults and children?
- Are your will, executor, and durable power of attorney up to date?
- Is an irrevocable living trust, which protects assets from the impact of taxes, right for you?
- Do you have an established and communicated strategy for determining if and when a transition to a continuing-care facility is needed?
Mistake #3: Disorganized or Nonexistent Documentation
We all live complex lives that we’ve organized in a way that makes sense to ourselves. But what happens if someone needs to step in to handle the bills or bank accounts for a period of time? My client’s husband got stuck overseas because of the coronavirus, and she had to pay the bills and manage the bank accounts. It took so much time to find the passwords, account numbers, and contact information.
Now everything is safely and securely documented in one place. Here are some items from the safety and documentation section of my Standard of Care Checklist. Take these steps now, before it’s urgent:
- Collect next of kin/family contact permissions and list of professional advisors.
- Collect records of computer files and passwords, photos of personal property, inventory of vehicles, and confirmation of financing and ownership.
If this seems overwhelming, please do just one thing: get your estate planning documents updated and stored in a safe and accessible place. You don’t want to be like my client’s mother who, when her husband died, found that all of the financial accounts were frozen until after probate. On top of dealing with her grief, she had limited cash to manage daily expenses.
Remember this saying from Ben Franklin: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Think how great it will feel to avoid missing something in your financial life that could come back to haunt you in the future.
Kathy Roeser is a Wealth Advisor at The Roeser Barbanente Group at Morgan Stanley in Chicago. Views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Morgan Stanley.
Kathy Roeser is a Managing Director and Wealth Advisor with the Wealth Management Division of Morgan Stanley in Chicago. The information contained in this column is not a solicitation to purchase or sell investments. Any information presented is general in nature and not intended to provide individually tailored investment advice. The strategies and/or investments referenced may not be suitable for all investors as the appropriateness of a particular investment or strategy will depend on an investor’s individual circumstances and objectives. Investing involves risks and there is always the potential of losing money when you invest. The views expressed herein are those of the author and may not necessarily reflect the views of Morgan Stanley Wealth Management or its affiliates. Morgan Stanley Smith Barney, LLC, member SIPC.