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It was supposed to be me

James Beckham for Progressive Cattle Published on 24 June 2019
Pam Beckham

It was supposed to be me – I was supposed to be the first to go. Statistically, the husband dies first, so Pam and I made provisions for that far off, but seemingly inevitable, event. 

We made sure our wills were up-to-date. We paid extra attention to what would happen legally and financially with the ranches after my death and how that would affect Pam. We filled binders of information Pam might need in order to pick up where I left off in my part of ranch management. Pam even applied for a credit card in her name to start building her own credit limit. We were feeling smug.

Then the doctor diagnosed my beautiful wife with a very rare form of uterine cancer. Less than 12 months after diagnosis, Pam was dead.

As I type this, I am reeling emotionally. I am having to adjust to the new reality of life without my best friend, my wife, my business partner. And, while I am emotionally ripped apart, I get letters from the Farm Service Agency and the Forest Service reminding me of upcoming deadlines. At the same time, I can’t get the online sites for our banks to work with my login credentials, and I am unable to locate the cattle inventory reports.

I was supposed to be the one who died first, but it wasn’t me. Pam was to be the person left to grieve while keeping ranches running and all the bills paid. There was no plan for me to be the one left behind.

What if the spouse that keeps your books dies first? What provisions and plans have you and your spouse made to keep your ranch running if your life partner/office manager is no longer there to pay the bills? When he or she is not there to find the livestock scale certification the cattle buyer wants to see, then what?

Life goes on. Our cows are dropping spring calves like rain, and she isn’t here to see it. I can’t enjoy new calves because I’m in the office trying to find information the county tax appraiser wants.

Living through this nightmare has given me a unique insight into ways a ranching couple can prepare and why they should. Learn from the mistakes Pam and I made. Please.

Following are steps my oldest daughter, Jamie, and I are taking to keep the business side of our ranches running. The procedures we are putting in place are all a result of questions such as:

Where is it? (And how do I find it again the next time I need it?)

We finally made a “map” – a list of what is in each file drawer. We eventually found the documents we needed, prior to April 15, but when we need one of those records again in six or 12 months, where was that file? We decided we had to make a list of what is in every file in each file drawer.

What is this?

I opened an envelope from a government agency and stared at a form I had never before seen. I called my CPA, who said not to worry, he would file the form for me. So I made a copy of the document, added a note and put the form in the file Jamie created called “Cheat Sheets,” with samples of every form we encounter and examples of how to fill it out. All we have to do next year is follow the templates we are creating.

What do I do with this?

I received forms from the FSA and the Forest Service on the same day, and I had no idea what to do with either form. I had to call and ask. You should know in advance what the forms are and what to do with them. See “Cheat Sheets” above.

Where is that number? (And all the rest of the numbers Pam seemed to always have at her fingertips)

I needed the state registration number for our ranch water wells. I know Pam had the number, so why can’t I find it? When Jamie and I located the data, we put that number in the Excel spreadsheet version of our “map” on the server. The spreadsheet is searchable to locate any form, registration number or document stored in a file drawer. Or we look at the paper “map” where the registration number is also saved.

What is the password?

I use a password storage software called Dashlane that saves the dozens of passwords we use for everything from banking to state websites. Dashlane is free, or you pay a reasonable amount each year and all your passwords are synced between your phone, your computer, your iPad, etc. Whatever storage software you do choose, start saving all your passwords and the passwords your spouse uses in an encrypted file.

Who do I talk to when I can’t figure out how to ... ?

My daughter and I created another Excel spreadsheet with contact names and phone numbers for each agency, supplier, insurance agent, banker, etc. That spreadsheet gives us a searchable database for all our important contacts. There are a myriad of ways to store those contacts electronically, but we just started with Excel because it is quick. Our spreadsheet has columns for name, agency (department, company, etc.), phone number, email address and what that person handles.

Is this website always this hard to use or is it just me because it is 2 a.m.?

None of us likes the phrase “cross-training.” I didn’t want to learn Pam’s office processes, and she was happy to handle all that for me. Now I know I should have had her train me in the basics of how she handled banking, accounting and so on. Then we should have written it down.

Isn’t there a way to do this automatically every month?

Jamie is a master of setting up automatic bill payments. She arranged it so the cellphone bill, the propane invoice and many other bills are automatically drafted from our checking account each month.

Should I save this form in a file folder or on the computer?

Jamie and I are deciding daily which things are better filed on the computer and which in paper files. You and your spouse need to figure out for your operation what is best stored as paper and what goes on the computer, then document where you filed it. The spouse left behind needs to be able to find information without days of searching, as I have had to do.

What do I do when the computer dies?

Today, find and pay a good IT/computer person to set up your computer with a system to back up all your files. If you hate computers, that’s all the more reason to pay a professional to set up your computer correctly and create a system that backs your data up daily. Not once a month – daily. Don’t hire your brother-in-law’s nephew; pay a real computer person. It will cost you less to pay someone now to create a backup system than it will cost you when your computer crashes and you have no backup. That same computer person will be able to help you after you accidentally press the “Please blow up this computer” key ... or you can’t find important data on the computer if your spouse dies.

When do I have to pay this so there is no penalty?

I have a paranoia about missing deadlines for government filings and thus incurring penalties. Pam had an Excel spreadsheet (thankfully) with deadlines for filing all sorts of forms, dates for paying the credit cards each month and so on. Jamie and I have greatly expanded this spreadsheet to include every deadline we encounter. We also built a shared Outlook calendar that includes the same deadlines. Outlook automatically reminds us of due dates, and the Excel spreadsheet gives us an overview of all deadlines.

You and your spouse need a survival strategy. You really need to talk about what could happen and make a plan. Then start putting my suggestions into action with a prayer you never need your master plan. I know setting all this up is a pain. However, I sincerely wish Pam and I had created a survival plan years ago.

My hope for you is that by the time one of you passes away, you have handed the office functions to one of your kids, and you don’t have the stress and sleepless nights I have experienced. However, if the worst happens and your spouse dies before you do, please have preparations so you are not left as clueless as I have been.  end mark

PHOTO: Pam Beckham, 1949-2019. Photo provided by James Beckham.

James Beckham is a writer and commercial Angus producer in Amarillo, Texas.

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