Tragic Death Prompts Unique Financial Planning Website

PHOTO: Chanel Reynolds
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A Seattle widow wants to save others the financial pain and worry she suffered, following the surprise death of her young husband. The financial planning website she has created, "GetYourS**tTogether.org," is unlike any other: simple, raw, crude, practical, personal and deeply felt. Not yet two weeks old, it has struck a chord with hundreds of people who have emailed her their thanks and appreciation.

"There are a few simple things I wish I had taken care of before my life went sideways," writes widow Chanel Reynolds on the site's introduction page, "like a will, living will, and some details jotted down. Should the ground fall out from under your feet—plan now for a softer landing."

In 2009, she writes, "My husband was killed in an accident. In the following hours, weeks and months I was shocked at how many things we had left disorganized or ignored."

Her husband, Jose Hernando, was hit by a car while bicycling. As he slipped from life in the hospital, and as Reynolds struggled with the shock and sorrow of her loss, the practical worries came: The couple had drafted wills but had never signed them. How would that affect her finances? Did Jose have life insurance? She didn't know. She didn't know the password to his email or to his phone, which greatly complicated her notifying friends and kin. It was these extra stresses on top of everything else, says Reynolds, that "pushed me over the edge."

Why, she berated herself, had she not taken care of these details before, in anticipation of such a crisis? If she had just invested a few hours, so much of this worry and frustration could have been avoided. Why hadn't she, she asked friends, "gotten her s**t together?"

That experience gave birth to Reynolds' website, which went live on January 7.

It pulls together features not typically found all together, in one place, on other financial planning sites: templates and checklists for making a will, recording and organizing important passwords and phone numbers, for creating a power of attorney, and for saving and organizing crucial financial or insurance information and such things as Social Security numbers, birth certificates, marriage certificates and medical history.

"If you get all this done," Reynolds tells ABC News, "it makes a potential mountain of paperwork and process so much easier to bear at a time when you're busy dealing with real grief and loss." She remembers, she says, the countless hours she spent on the phone to banks or insurance companies explaining that she lacked the necessary account information or passwords because she and her husband had not recorded them or shared them. "If you take 20 minutes over breakfast to write them down, it becomes so much easier later."

The public response to her site, she says, has been "overwhelming"--and overwhelmingly positive. The site is nearing, she says, 500,000 page views; its checklists have been downloaded 85,000 times. And that's since January 7.

Asked why she thinks it has struck a chord, she says she thinks it has to do with her story and with the fact she doesn't pretend to be a lawyer, an accountant or a professional financial planner. She's just a woman who has suffered and who is trying, she says, to save others from making the mistakes she herself did. Her site, she thinks, may be unique in the respect that it puts both life planning and death planning in the same place, so that they become part of one comprehensive plan.

Unique, too, is her personal advice, which begins at a place more intimate and fundamental than advice provided by other financial planning sites.

If, she says, you sit down to write your will and find yourself at a loss to know who should care for your children or to whom you should give permission to pull the plug on you, if you want to be allowed to die, then maybe that's a sign you don't have the right friends.

"Find some better friends," she advises. Tighten up or deepen your relationships with friends and family. "This is everything. This means everything."

Likewise, finish the unfinished: If you still haven't called that classmate you wish you'd kissed in third grade, call now. Make the apology or compliment that you've put off making. More painful than loss, she says, is regret and remorse. "Seeing the regret and remorse in others who had some unfinished words with Jose took me to my knees." Don't leave messes, she instructs: Clean them up now, while you still can.

Finally, she says: Leave traces. Make a record of who you were for those who, years after you are gone, might want to know—your grandkids, say. She's glad her husband left behind videos of presentations that he made at work. They capture his characteristic gestures. "Try to leave some things along the way so people can feel close to you, listen to your favorite music, smell you, wear your clothes, hear your voice."

Her site, she says, isn't about pie charts or asset allocation. It focuses instead on the "personal" in personal finance. "I'm grateful my story has resonated with people," says Reynolds, "grateful not only that they've been touched, but that they're acting on it."

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