Author: Terri Starliper
Dealing with Death, Dollars, & Sense
On August 5, 2000, I married USAF Technical Sergeant Christopher Sheaffer. We had been together for almost 3 years. Chris was a Freefall Instructor at the Yuma Proving Grounds in Arizona. I was an accountant in Phoenix. Chris had two daughters from a previous marriage. We had bought a fixer-upper house in Phoenix with land where we could keep our horses. I had been recently promoted. We were set. Life was picture perfect.
And then on September 12, just five weeks after our wedding, an Air Force Colonel and several of our friends showed up at my office dressed in uniform. “We regret to inform you…” are the words that still ring through my ears. I kept interrupting the Colonel saying, “No, I just talked to him last night. He was fine, he is fine. This can’t be.” But it was true.
I was escorted back to our home, which now seemed so empty and pointless. I felt as if I were standing all alone on the last remaining little piece of earth. I called my mom to tell her the news as I handed over my address book to one of our friends who would call the others. When I got off the phone, I just sat there. For the first time in my life, I had no idea what to do. I was helpless and lost.
The Colonel asked if there was anything I needed or something he could do. I said, “Bring Chris back?” He paused, apologized again for my loss, and told me I would be contacted by someone to help with funeral arrangements and discuss financial benefits.
Financial benefits? What financial benefit could there possibly be? And what did I care at that moment about finances. I had no idea what to do with the news I had just been given. And I could not stomach the idea that I would have to make funeral arrangements for my husband who had just turned 36 a month ago. We had barely finished making wedding arrangements. Now I was alone. How were financial benefits going to make this all better? Nothing was going to make this go away.
The Casualty Affairs Officer I met with informed me that Chris’s pay would stop immediately, but I would receive benefits to help me financially. Her comment quickly pulled me back into reality. Oh my God! Chris had me mail the child support check to his ex-wife earlier in the week. Would there be enough money in the account to cover the check? How would the girls get any more child support? And how in the world was I going to pay the Harley payment, truck payment, trailer payment, and credit card debt from Chris’s divorce? I made decent money, but I could not cover all of our bills on my salary alone.
With the officer’s words, the last remaining little piece of earth I was standing on slipped out from under me. In that moment I went from “happily married” to 26 year old “widow.” I went from being financially sound and fairly well off to wondering how I was going to pay my bills. There was no way. I was an accountant so I ran the numbers in my head. I knew I could not pay our bills without his income.
The Casualty Affairs officer gave me a check for $6,000. Half of it was taxable income. She said the money was to help me with immediate expenses until the life insurance claim was processed. She then explained that I was the beneficiary of Chris’s Servicemembers Group Life Insurance (SGLI) valued at $200,000. I had no idea what this insurance was. I had only been a military wife for five weeks. We did not even have time to get a joint checking account.
For a moment I was just numb. Then I felt sick. I was going to receive $200,000 from the government in exchange for my husband’s life. Blood money. That’s what I called it. I did not want it. I wanted Chris. Even though I had been stressed over the past two days wondering how I was going to survive financially without Chris, this information did not provide any relief.
I talked to friends and family about the SGLI money. I just kept saying I didn’t want the money. I had no idea that Chris paid a monthly premium for this insurance. I thought the government just paid this amount for the death of service members. I was ignorant. Friends reminded me that Chris paid for this insurance and chose me as the beneficiary. He made the ultimate sacrifice and it was his way of taking care of me in his absence.
It still did not matter. What would this money do for me? Would it make me happy? All the money in the world was not going to change the loss or ease my pain. When the SGLI check came in the mail, it sat on the counter for days. I did not want it. I wanted Chris, not the money.
The Air Force assigned an officer to help me close Chris’s personal and military affairs. She called to see if there was anything she could do. I had finally decided to look at my checkbook and pay bills. It was bad. I could afford to pay the Harley and truck payments but not the trailer or his credit card. I did not want to lose all of his things, but I couldn’t pay all the bills. So the officer offered to call the debtors and see if they could defer payments for a while until I got things in order.
I realized I needed the SGLI money if I was going to keep everything. When I went to the bank to deposit the money, I was questioned by the teller as to how I came across this much money. I was insulted. With tears in my eyes and anger in my voice, I told her I had lost my husband. I suppose it isn’t everyday a 26-year-old brings in a check for $200,000. I split the money between two banks so I would have up to $100,000 covered by FDIC insurance. Beyond that, I had no clue what to do. I simply allowed the money to sit there.
Many people were quick to tell me what I needed to do with the money. I should pay off the house, the truck, the Harley. What did they know? Had they ever received a sum of money like this? Did they know how I could start my life over?
I called my stepdad because he seemed to be good with money. He told me he had his money invested for years with a financial advisor. I did not realize he relied on someone else to handle his money for him. I told him about all the advice I was getting from friends and family. He recommended I call his advisor. It was the best thing I could have done.
I talked to his advisor and explained my situation. I told him I did not want the money but unfortunately needed some of it. I knew it was not a lot (although some people acted like I was rich) and I needed to make it last. I knew Chris would want me to set aside some for his daughters and I definitely needed some to help me readjust my lifestyle to survive on my income alone.
Now, I am a fully licensed financial advisor. How I got into this career does not matter nearly as much as why I did. The story I shared with you is as clear in my mind now as it was back then. The day I received the news was the worst day of my life. For that reason, I am grateful for the opportunity to help people prepare for tragedy should it occur, and help them through it when it does.
None of us thought this would happen to us…but it did. In hindsight I offer the following advice to you from a personal and professional viewpoint:
- If you do not have a financial advisor, get one. You will need the expertise and advice to help you start a new life. Make sure you choose someone you can trust. It should be someone who listens to your concerns and needs. Having a professional managing your risk and helping you plan for financial security is priceless.
- Find a financial advisor who does financial planning. Anyone can give financial advice. You want someone who provides advice based on your situation. They need to understand all aspects of your financial situation before offering recommendations for investments and products.
- Make sure you are clear on the fees and charges upfront if you decided to use a financial advisor. Don’t wait until after you have invested in their recommendations.
- Take your time. It’s okay to let your money sit for a while. You have a lot to deal with. An advisor who offers solutions for investing your money is fine. However, if those solutions have short deadlines or the advisor seems pushy, you may want to reconsider who you are working with.
- Count on your family for emotional support but not financial advice. Everyone thinks they know what you should do with your new money. Paying off the house and other debt is not always the right thing to do. Every situation is different, and everyone has different goals and needs.
- Make sure you have the right amount of insurance to take care of your loved ones in your absence. The money will not ease the pain of loss but it will help relieve the financial stress. I realize now how much easier things would have been if we had been prepared for this to happen to Chris or to me. You can never prepare emotionally for this loss, but having your finances in order and your wishes documented eliminates some of the chaos during this awful journey.
It has been more than eight years since Chris died. The battle is hard and the road to a new life is long. Somehow we find the strength to keep moving. Life will never be the same and the pain is always there, but hold on to the memories. Keep your head up and look for better times. I promise they will come.
No one is guaranteed tomorrow. But if tomorrow never comes for me, I know that my family will be cared for. I learned from my own story.
By Terri Starliper, surviving spouse of USAF Technical Sergeant Christopher Sheaffer: Terri Starliper holds a BS in Accounting and has taught high school business courses. In December 2007 Terri became a fully licensed Financial Advisor. She is employed by Ameriprise Financial Services, Inc. As a military survivor, Terri facilitates a local TAPS Care Group and is a peer mentor. She and her children live in Stafford, Virginia.