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Business

Widow’s website helps you get it together

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SEATTLE — In the days after Chanel Reynolds’s husband was hit while riding his bicycle , she was not yet consumed by grief. There were no dogged middle-of-the-night Web searches for faraway cures for his crushed upper spine or tearful bedside vigils with their 5-year-old son.

Instead, the buzz in her brain came from a growing list of financial tasks that grown-ups are supposed to have finished by middle age. And she and her husband, Jose Hernando, had not finished them.

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‘‘I was finding it really hard for me to stay present and in the room and to be able to hear what the doctors were saying because I was so overwhelmed with not knowing how much money we had in our checking account, and the fact that we had our wills drafted but not signed,’’ she said. ‘‘I didn’t know whether I was going to be able to float a family by myself.’’

In the months after Hernando’s death in July 2009, she beat herself up while excavating their financial life and slowly reassembling it. But then, she resolved to keep anyone she knew from ever being in the same situation.

The result is a website named for the scolding, profane exhortation that her inner voice shouted during those dark days. She might have called it Getyouracttogether.org, but she changed just one word.

The site offers some basic financial advice, gives away templates for a master checklist, and provides starter forms to draft a will, living will, and power of attorney. There’s also a guide to starting a list of all of the accounts that someone might need to access and close in your absence.

All of these forms and lists are out there on the Web in various places, though rarely in one place. But there are two things that make Reynolds’s effort decidedly different.

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First, the world of personal finance suffers from an odd sort of organizational failure. We tend to organize our thinking around products: retirement accounts, mortgages, long-term care insurance.

But in the real world, it’s a big life event that often governs our hunt for solutions. Sometimes, it’s a happy one, like getting married. But there are few ready-made tool kits like the one Reynolds has assembled for people considering the possibility of serious illness or death.

The other thing that compelled me to sprint here was that it is not neutered, stripped of the mess of feelings that govern much of what we do with our money. Sometimes, we just need to meet the person in personal finance. Maybe, just maybe, hearing the story of someone who has been there can finally push us all into action.

And we need to act. According to a survey that the legal services site Rocket Lawyer conducted in 2011, 57 percent of adults in the United States do not have a will.

People who get a fatal diagnosis from a doctor at least have a bit of time to sort things out. But Reynolds and her husband had made only a few plans.

Hernando was 43 when a van mowed him down. He was a self-taught engineer who played guitar in a band. At the time of his death, he was a Flash developer.

After his death, this much was clear: The family with the six-figure income and the four-bedroom house had a will with no signature, little emergency savings, and an unknown number of accounts with passwords that had been in Hernando’s head.

What saved Reynolds, now 42, from ­ruin was life insurance. They didn’t have a lot, but they had just enough (a couple of hundred thousand dollars in the end) to keep her from having to go right back to work and sell the house at a big loss right away. It helped pay for the education of their son, Gabriel, who is now 9, and for Hernando’s daughter from a previous relationship, Lyric, who is 16. Reynolds now carries a $1 million term policy on herself.

So she did not go bankrupt. But the lack of a signed will ended up costing her thousands of dollars in unnecessary legal fees. And then there was the extended period of suspended animation, where she was trying to figure out where she stood with insurance and retirement accounts and phone bills but could not get the information that she needed without account numbers and passwords.

It’s true that her Web efforts are not unprecedented. Nolo helped pioneer a do-it-yourself legal movement, and its state-by-state materials are thorough. Several commercial sites can help store and sort your documents and accounts, including organizemyaffairs.com, estatedocsorganizer.com, legacylocker.com, aftersteps.com, thedocsafe.com, and safeboxfinancial.com.

Bill Cahill, a lawyer in New York, said Reynolds’s legal templates were better than nothing. Diana S.C. Zeydel, chairwoman of the estate and gift tax committee for the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel, applauded Reynolds’s efforts. But she worried that some people who adopted the sample will could end up worse off.

Reynolds’s website was only four days old as of this writing, and within 24 hours it had been shared more than 100 times on Facebook. So already, Reynolds feels that it’s been worthwhile to share her experience.

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