A week before 9/11, Mark Colgan lost his wife to heart disease. In the span of a single day, he went from waking up next to her to planning her burial. Even for a certified financial planner, the mountain of financial and legal details that span the next year of his life was overwhelming.

His new book, Death’s Red Tape, aims to guide you gently through the financial and administrative process following the death of a loved one. It teaches you to face each task one step at a time with checklists to keep things simple. It even includes all the resources you might need along the way. 

In this difficult time in your life, this knowledge can’t erase all the challenges of your loss but it can make the practical aspects of navigating that loss a little easier.

Hey, listeners. My name is Drew Applebaum and I’m excited to be here today with Mark Colgan, author of Death’s Red Tape: Your Guide for Navigating Legal, Financial, and Personal Transitions When a Partner Dies. Mark, thank you for joining. Welcome to The Author Hour Podcast.

Mark Colgan: Thank you, Drew. I appreciate being here.

Drew Appelbaum: Mark, help us kick off the podcast. Can you give us a brief rundown of your professional background?

Mark Colgan: Yes, I am a certified financial planner, it’s hard to believe but I’ve actually been in the financial planning business for 29 years now. So, I really love what I do, working with a lot of individuals and families, finances, estate planning and things of such.

Drew Appelbaum: Now, why was now the time to share this story in the book? Is there something inspiring out there for you, an “aha moment” or did enough people tell you, “Hey, this is a big problem in society, you need to write this down and share this with the masses.”?

Mark Colgan: That’s a good question. I think it won’t come as a surprise to you that almost 50% of Americans don’t even have an estate plan. It’s just — it’s one of those, I guess, taboo topics. People don’t want to talk about death and they don’t want to address any of the issues that are anything related to end of life. It’s ironic, I mean, people spend more time planning a two-week vacation than they will for their own demise.

Drew Appelbaum: Now, you just said you were in the business for 29 years and you sort of lived through this experience yourself but when you sort of dug back into some of the topics in the book to put the book together, maybe just by doing some further research or just by reliving these moments, did you have any breakthroughs or learnings along your writing journey?

Mark Colgan: I did actually. I mean, it was a reminder that even though I’m a certified financial planner and have all this experience, it’s a topic that when you’re emotionally consumed and you’ve just lost a loved one, it doesn’t matter your level of expertise or knowledge, your — I guess, the best way to say it is, your brain’s not firing on all cylinders. So, no matter how smart or experienced the individual is that I’m working with, they need help, they need guidance, they need structure, they need support.

Drew Appelbaum: You learned the lessons in the book again like, firsthand due to the tragic loss of your wife and so, how hard was it to think back to those times when you were putting together the book?

Mark Colgan: It’s definitely difficult. I mean, I still to this day can remember the day that Joanne died in great detail. It was the week before 9/11, literally can remember the geese flying overhead as I woke up that morning, gave her a kiss good morning and I went downstairs to work out. When I came back upstairs, I had found that Joanne had passed. 

I attempted the whole process of CPR, called 911 and within minutes, it seemed like the bedroom was full of people, emergency medical technicians, policemen, firemen, the neighbor and there was this obvious and appropriate attempt to save her life but it was clear that time had passed and it was no longer applicable. I’m giving you some detail this morning because it really is part of the reason I wanted to write about how to handle the logistics of death because you know, there were certain things that came up that morning like the EMT would not stop trying to resuscitate her when it was clear that too much time had passed but I needed a healthcare proxy.

I had to run down the hall, get it out of the safe, hold it up and specifically show them I had this document and there were many other things that passed throughout that morning, a lot of logistical things that came up within minutes and hours of her death that I had to contend with, all the while, just completely emotionally overwhelmed that my beautiful wife had just passed.

Drew Appelbaum: So, amongst the chaos when all this is happening and just, I’m sure, the shock that’s going on, what immediately needs to be taken care of once a partner does pass and what is that timeframe for those immediate needs for you to do it?

Mark Colgan: Well, if the death is at the home, it has to be reported to the police or ambulance, et cetera, so that’s one immediate thing. If you’re in the midst of that death like I was, you may have to have immediate access to certain documents such as healthcare proxy, then there’s other decisions that have to be made immediately about whether or not they’re going to donate organs. You’re going to need that answer pretty quick and if you hadn’t discussed that with your loved one, well, you’re going to have to make an executive decision right then and there.

Then there’s other questions that came up, I remember the phone ringing within an hour of Joanne’s death and they had asked, “Can we do an autopsy? Because we feel like the hospital, the scientist could really benefit from learning about her heart disease and how it unfolded” et cetera and so, I had to make an immediate decision. 

So some of those are big decisions, right, that have to be made within hours or if not, minutes and even by the end of the day, I had to contend with things such as, “Where do you want us to take her?” I’m like, “Okay, that’s a weird question. What do you mean?” Literally, I mean, I just didn’t even understand, what are you talking about, where do you take her, I never gave this any thought. Well, what funeral home are you using or what cemetery do you have?

I’m saying to myself, I don’t have either, I never — we didn’t plan on her dying this morning so I had to pick something though, right there in the spot. You can see that you’re really put in a bind to make some really immediate decisions just that day in itself.

Drew Appelbaum: What are those items that don’t need immediate attention but you still should tackle within a pretty short timeline?

Mark Colgan: Well, that’s an interesting question. While some of the things are in fact immediate and demand a response, on the flip side, to your point, I think there’s a lot of things that can wait yet people often feel like they need to answer them right away or get through things, such as one common mistake that I see a lot is people would want to change the registration on their bank account from joint to single or their investment accounts.

There is no hurry for that at all, you could wait weeks and that’s not a problem, yet people rush on those things and there can be consequences to those decisions that could literally derail the entire estate plan. So, that would be one example. Another example that you wouldn’t want to rush are big decisions such as moving or selling the home or making big purchases or large transactions.

When you stop and really think about it, many of those things can be taken care of over time yet for some reason, I always see people feel like they need to get it off their check list, almost like, “Okay, if I can get through this, I’m going to be on the other side off grief.” Well, that’s not necessarily true and sometimes it can backfire on you.

Avoiding The Pitfalls of Rushing Decisions

Drew Appelbaum: What are some of the major pitfalls that folks will traditionally run into and that you’ve seen?

Mark Colgan: There’s definitely a few that I see come up over and over such as people rushing to pay off debts. For instance, the credit card is a perfect example. Well, if a debt such as a credit card bill is in the deceased name only, it is really an obligation of the estate, not the survivor.

So, whether or not you agree with this, the technical answer is, that’s not your problem. That debt does not necessarily have to be paid, so if there’s not enough money left in the estate to cover that bill, the creditor’s kind of on their own. Yet, I see spouses or partners, loved ones will feel it’s ethical and appropriate to payoff the bills right away with their own money and you don’t need to do that. There are other options. 

Another thing that I see all too often is where people will change the registration on an account and it can really have consequences, like I said earlier, on the estate plan because the estate plan may have intended for that money to go to someone else, yet having removed the registration or changed things around, it actually may negate that possibility. 

Another thing I see that people do very often is drop off the car that was leased and pay off the balance. Okay, well once again, you may have acted too quickly because there are some manufacturers even today that still have a clause in the lease in fine print that allows you to drop off the lease and have no more further obligations financially and if they understand that it was a death, then you just give them the keys and you’re done, you don’t have any concerns. 

So there’s definitely some things you should be aware of like that that if you move too quickly there’s consequences. 

Drew Appelbaum: Now, while you’re going through all of this, we kind of briefly touched on it before but I love to hear your answer because you did live it firsthand. Is there anything you could tell yourself to separate the grief and the grieving period while you are taking care of all of these steps? 

Mark Colgan: It is tough to do that because grief tends to have its own agenda. For example, you know, I could be in — you can be in a great mood and you walk down, you get your mailbox, you are not even thinking about your loved one’s death and all of a sudden, you see something in the mail addressed to them with their name on it or maybe you hear a song on the radio and it just consumes you immediately.

So, to some degree, there is many things you can’t control but I would say that to your point, you’ve got to be careful about keeping them separate when you can such as not wanting to go through all of the logistics that need to be taken care of quickly and with a false assumption that that means you’re going to get to the other side of grief. 

Drew Appelbaum: What can you do before that tragic moment happens with your partner now that can be done to ease the burden when that time comes? 

Mark Colgan: That is such an important topic, Drew. I try very hard and do a pretty good job at getting people to think about death while there is no crisis. It’s the best time to do that, right? You are level headed, you’re thinking clearly and you just have to have that difficult conversation. It may start with let’s get the will taken care off, part of that estate planning traditionally would also include a healthcare proxy and a power of attorney. 

So let’s talk about that, let’s get that taken care off. That process is pretty typical, pretty straight forward but that’s what I would suggest is the first step. Then beyond that, rather than just getting a bunch of documents signed on a Thursday afternoon, you really should talk about your last wishes. What would it look like? Would you rather have a celebration of life or would you rather have a funeral? 

If you ever died, what do we want to do with the animals or the pets? These other practical matters such as where do you keep the passwords and all of those things. That is what I would call the soft side of an estate plan and those are discussions that should be had well in advance of death. 

Drew Appelbaum: Is there anything specifically that when you do start to have this conversation that a financial planner and a certified financial planner can help out with?

Mark Colgan: They very often can help you with the logistics of making sure beneficiaries are designated property for any retirement accounts or life insurance accounts. Very often they can also help explain to you in terms that are understandable what’s going to happen at death, what kind of taxes are owed, who is going to get the money, how long does it take? A certified financial planner or financial planner can also introduce you to an estate planning attorney in your community that they already trust and know and can help walk you through that process and answer questions along the way. 

Drew Appelbaum: Some of the parts that are really, really helpful for the book is that you bring up so many things that I don’t think most people think about including identity theft and not for you but for the deceased. I was actually pretty surprised by this, so how much of an issue is this problem? 

Mark Colgan: I think it’s significant. It may not happen often per se but it happens regularly and there’s just a few things that you can do to prevent it I guess is the best way to say it. So I always tell people, number one, be careful about how much you put in the obituary. You don’t need to put where they lived or their date of birth, right? Yet, you do see that type of thing. You hate to think that way but there are several tips that I give regarding identify theft and ways to avoid it. I could kind of divulge into that a little bit more if you like.

Drew Appelbaum: Sure. 

Mark Colgan: So, limit the obituary. The other thing, I mentioned it earlier is when you have a death, you need to notify certain places. I had mentioned 911 of course but also, you want the death certificates to go to the major credit reporting agencies. You want to report the death to the social security administration and the DMV. I think those are super crucial because that would prevent any identity theft from occurring at one of the primary sources. 

Then you know, there is other obvious tips too like change the passwords, shred your documents, dispose of your electronics properly, monitor your bank accounts. Some people even go as far as buying fraud protection for the first year or two. 

Drew Appelbaum: Now, what impact do you hope the book will have on readers and are there any immediate steps you hope they’ll take while they’re reading or after they finish the book? 

Mark Colgan: I see there’s two audiences for this book and the impact would be different for each. For those who have recently lost a loved one, I would like to see that this book will make them feel more relaxed and that they know if they follow the guidelines and the steps and the tips in the book things are going to be okay and that in itself is hopefully going to give them some calmness about, “Okay, you know what? I can spend some time here to celebrate their life” et cetera. 

So you know, it will afford them more time to do what they should be doing rather than getting all anxious about the details. So for that audience, that’s what I hope it does. For others though, perhaps someone that may have received the book that didn’t lose a loved one, even skimming through it they might say to themselves, “Wow, there is a lot going on here and a lot of it are things that could be avoided if I preplan.” 

If I think about all of these stuff now, get it sorted out in my head and do a proper proactive estate plan and sit down and talk about it with everybody, I can actually avoid a lot of the challenges that may come of my death. So, that’s a separate objective for those folks. 

Drew Appelbaum: Sure. Now, you also have a companion website for the book. Can you tell us what it is and what people can find there? 

Mark Colgan: Yes, mywisdomwill.com is one of the tools that I put together that does in fact help people preplan the soft side of their estate plan. We talked a little bit about this earlier where in addition to getting the logistics with the traditional will, et cetera, I like the idea of documenting some of these softer issues such as funeral arrangements and how to take care of the pets and those sorts of things. 

So I developed My Wisdom Will as a document that puts together 25 questions in all and folks can go through and answer one or all of them and document some of their thoughts and wishes in advance. It is a really nice document that will compliment your traditional will and hopefully make that transition after death a much more enjoyable experience. 

Drew Appelbaum: Well, Mark, we just touched on the surface of the book here and there is so much more inside. I just want to say that sharing your story and putting this book out there to help others who might find themselves in your situation is no small feat. So, congratulations on having your book published. 

Mark Colgan: Thank you, Drew, I appreciate it. 

Drew Appelbaum: Mark, this has been a pleasure. I’m excited for people to check out the book. Everyone, the book is called, Death’s Red Tape, and you can find it on Amazon. Mark, besides checking out the book, besides going to your website, is there anywhere else where people can connect with you? 

Mark Colgan: Absolutely, they can contact me through my website, montagewealthmanagement.com or they can find me on LinkedIn. 

Drew Appelbaum: Well, Mark, thank you so much for giving us some of your time today and best of luck with your new book. 

Mark Colgan: Thank you, Drew.