Four years ago, I uttered the words, “I don’t know what everyone is complaining about, 40 is awesome!” Just two weeks later, my husband, Gregory, died suddenly, and I became a widow and single parent of three kids under 12. Everything changed in a moment, and 40 didn’t feel so good anymore. It hasn’t been easy, but since then, I’ve gained a bit of perspective that I can share with you about how to protect your family in case of an unexpected death. Here are my top four ways to strengthen your future and add peace of mind to your present.

  1. Estate Documents

For many married couples, this is the new “six pack.”

Two Wills + Two Powers of Attorneys + Two Healthcare Directives = Six pack

Wills make clear your wishes for your property and the care of your children. Be prepared to name the following: executor, beneficiary(s), guardians, and trustee. In many circumstances, the person you designate as the guardian for your children is the same person who you name as your trustee. But just because Uncle Johnny and Aunt Janie are good with the kids, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are the best with a budget. The trustee helps make decisions on how your money is used for the health, education, and welfare of your kids.

Powers of Attorneys, also called POA’s, appoint someone to help pay the bills and make general business decisions while you are temporarily incapacitated.

Healthcare Directives are usually kept on file by your primary doctor. If a healthcare emergency takes place, your physician can fax it directly to the hospital so that your choices about artificial life support and comfort are known and spelled out in your medical record. The guardian you appoint on your Healthcare Directive will be the person the doctors use as your point of contact.

Although not a document that you hold in your hands, estate planning should also include in-depth conversations between married couples. Discuss the life decisions we never hope to make: “Will you stay in this house? Will you change careers? Who will help run the family business, or will you sell your portion of ownership?” If your spouse dies unexpectedly, you will feel more confident when faced with difficult decisions knowing that you already set a course together.

  1. Life Insurance

Having life insurance coverage in place at the time of my husband’s death was our saving grace. We had coverage through his employer as well as a permanent life insurance policy that we had taken out 10 years prior because he traveled a lot with work. As a result, I never feared not being able to keep my house or give my kids the opportunities in life that they deserved. Many types of polices  are available between term and permanent insurance, so there is bound to be an affordable option that fits your needs. A financial advisor can help you explore various life insurance choices.

  1. Paperwork Organized

What I am most thankful for at the time of my husband’s death is that I was organized. We had recently moved to a new home, so all of my paperwork was handy in a filing folder with color-coded tabs. When a parent passes, school age children are often eligible for social security benefits, which often means visiting the Social Security Office to apply.  When I took the trip to Social Security to determine the eligibility for survivor benefits, I had my folder tightly in hand.

 Here is what was inside:

Social Security Numbers-  myself, the children, my deceased husband’s

Birth Certificates- myself and the children

Past year’s W-2 Forms (wage and tax statements)

Marriage Certificate

Death Certificate

Bank Account Routing Slip- myself and the children.

For many of us, a good reason to write a check is rare these days, so another tip to stay organized is to use an online bill payer tool. Most banks offer these types of systems, which can help to ensure that your accounts stay current.  If you rather use an app, many exist for your cell phone, just search the word budget in your app finder.  Remember: Keep a secure, updated list of the passwords that you and your spouse use for bills and investments.

  1. Rainy Day Fund

My aunt whispered some glowing advice to me before I walked down the aisle on my wedding day: “Set aside a rainy day fund.” She had weathered many of life’s unplanned moments — work layoffs, exploding car engines, fallen trees in the front yard — by sending a portion of each paycheck directly to a savings account that she didn’t consider as part of her long-term savings or spending budget. Financial advisors refer to this as a cash reserve, and they suggest putting aside three to six months’ worth of funds needed to maintain your bills. In my case, this was the money that I had immediate access to so that I could afford to take a short leave of absence from work while my children and I began coping with our grief and figuring out our plans for a future.

Now, as I arrive at the ripe old age of 44, those are my four pieces of wisdom that couples should take action on today to ease their financial decision-making in an uncertain world.