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Before life goes sideways, be sure to do these 3 things

Jill Cornfield
Chanel Reynolds realized that planning, from emergency savings to writing down passwords, can spare a distressed family from even more suffering.

Chanel Reynolds got the call you never want.

Her husband, Jose, had been in a terrible accident and was now in intensive care, irreparably wounded. A week later, with no signs of brain function, he was removed from life support and died. Meanwhile, Reynolds realized they had wills, but they were not signed or notarized. She wasn't sure of all their coverage, and she couldn't easily locate the phone number for their insurance company.

A super-organized project manager, Reynolds says her organizing skills were extremely helpful. At the same time, she said, it was "humiliating that I was so disorganized and felt so helpless."

Holding her thumb and fingers several inches apart to represent a stack of paper, Reynolds said the mail piled up and all she could do was stare at it, paralyzed.

When she recovered from an unrecoverable time, Reynolds created GYST.com in 2013 to share what she'd learned. (GYST stands for Get Your S--- Together.) A few things kept recurring, and she said, "If we had had these few things done, there would have been less to answer. I hoped family and friends would share."

The site went viral and Reynolds wrote "What Matters Most," a guide to wills, money and insurance — and where to start when you don't even know you need to do this.

Planning for catastrophes

It's not the actual planning or organizational tasks themselves. People manage to plan and carry out other complicated tasks. When the event is positive — getting married, having a child, buying a home, inheriting some money — it's far easier and more exciting to sit down and make plans.

As Reynolds points out, the negative ones such as a bad diagnosis or disability, or some unforeseen disaster, are a punch in the gut.

When things go to pieces, you don't know what you don't know. The average person has several financial accounts and different types of coverage, and few people can quickly lay their hands on all that information.

At a minimum, to be prepared for some unforeseen catastrophe, you should have a will, an emergency fund and a simple folder or notebook that holds financial and account information for you and your partner.

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It's far easier to write down passwords and assemble information on accounts and key phone numbers when life is humming along. Planning simply makes a hard time easier, Reynolds says. What's more, we do it all the time for a range of events both big and small.

"We back up our computers, we change our furnace filters and the oil in our cars," Reynolds said. Getting organized for an unseen event is no different.

Don't feel bad if you don't have all your plans nailed down. More than half of American adults don't have a will, according to Lexis Nexis, the legal research company. Fewer than half would be able to come up with $1,000 for an emergency expense. But do scout the possibility that things will not always go smoothly. More than 1 in 4 people age 20 will become disabled before reaching retirement age, according to the Social Security Administration.

The best thing you can do is start today. Work on building a cash cushion. And if you don't have a will, make one.

A routine surgery gone wrong

Like most people in their 30s, neither Liz Gendreau, 38, an IT program manager, nor her husband had wills. They just assumed there'd be plenty of time at some unspecified later date.

But a routine surgery for Gendreau's husband, Todd Gwiazdowski, led to a long ICU stay with life-threatening complications seven years ago. At the time, Gwiazdowski was collecting unemployment, which he lost because he could not look for work. He had been caring for the couple's sons, so expenses also soared because Gendreau needed to secure child care.

Liz Gendreau and Todd Gwiazdowski found out the hard way that there are more types of emergency than simple job loss.

The expenses go way beyond medical ones.

"There's a ton of nonmedical expenses people never think about it," Gendreau said. "Special food, installing railings in the house, special clothes," she said. Many may not be allowable expenses through a health savings account. Luckily, Gwiazdowski recovered. Gendreau blogs about family finance on her website, Chief Mom Officer.

Until he was in the hospital long enough to qualify for a discount, Gendreau had to pay for hospital parking. "You don't have time to cook," Gendreau said, so there's food to pay for. So many things are not technically medical, but they all come at once. Just as your income goes down your expenses skyrocket.

An emergency fund was put to immediate use. Gendreau's strategy was to reallocate her spending. "Because I'd always put money in the kids' college funds and retirement, I was able to come up with money by stopping saving," she said.

'What if...?'

Job loss is just one difficult scenario. Gendreau recommends imagining how you might handle different types of emergencies beyond simple cash amounts.

Consider how you'd manage if you had to move out of your home after a flood or a fire. Where would you take money from? What if you run through your three months' fund? If you have kids, you'll want a plan for taking care of them if neither parent is able to. Do you depend on family or friends? How near are these people?

Reynolds recommends playing "what if?" to determine the areas in which your family could be most vulnerable. For Reynolds, not having an emergency fund was devastating. "If I hadn't been able to lean on some people" it would have been catastrophic. Her husband had no disability insurance, and his injuries were unrecoverable. There was loss of salary, possibly long-term care, that would have bankrupted the family.

"Think of the things that can go wrong," Reynolds said. "[Think about] what's most important. I have found I sleep better at night knowing some of the basic stuff is taken care of."

There's also peace of mind in being able to say you did enough planning. "I was so embarrassed about how poorly I'd planned," Reynolds said. "If you can create more space to be in the room and less time beating yourself up for poor planning, we're all better off."

"Even if you figured out everything in advance, when you're sitting in the ICU next to your husband, wondering if he's going to live, it's inherently stressful," Gendreau said. "That's not the best time to figure all that out. I think we don't talk about it as much as we should because everyone thinks nothing will ever go wrong."

Regular checkups

Keep in mind that planning is usually not one and done, but something that needs reviewing and checking on a regular basis. Reynolds schedules her annual checkup around her birthday because it's an easy way to remember something crucial. Around that time, she revisits insurance and other paperwork.

When things get hard, everything else seems to get harder, Reynolds says, "which is the opposite of what needs to happen. It's a domino effect."

That cascade can make it hard for people to get out of the hole financially and emotionally. "Hoping for the best is nice, but it's not a plan," Reynolds said.

At some point, she realized she wasn't the only who didn't have all her ducks in a row. Most people don't have solid plans in place for dire emergencies. "We all suck at this," she said.

Disclosure: NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.