Dear Friends,
There is no reason to sugar-coat this, so let me get to the point: this column is about death. In particular: What would happen if you died tomorrow?

I know most of us have no way of knowing precisely when our number will be up, but neither did the victims of the recent mudslides in California or the 150,000 killed in the Asian tsunami.

So, getting back to my question, if you died, would your spouse or your children have to tear the house apart looking for your will? Would they argue over what music should be played at your funeral? Six months from now, when the central air in your house is starting to hiccup, will your surviving spouse know the name of the company that’s been servicing your heating/A.C. system for the past 10 years?

Mark Colgan, a CFP in Rochester, N.Y., knows first-hand the chaos and confusion that can overwhelm survivors when a loved one dies. Several years ago he experienced it himself when his young wife, Joanne, died.

Colgan figured if it was hard for him to deal with all of the details, it had to be especially difficult for someone unfamiliar with financial and legal issues. So he collected his notes and channeled his grief to create "The Survivor Assistance Handbook."

This small but powerful booklet walks you through the seemingly endless decisions you face when a loved one dies — both in the days immediately after death and in the months that follow. While some of these are crucial (Where are his/her military discharge papers?), others seem ridiculously trivial (Do you want baby’s breath in that arrangement?). I wrote about him in this space about two years ago.

Now, in response to inquiries from people who want to plan ahead and minimize the stress on loved ones, Colgan has developed a companion booklet called "The Survivor Assistance Diary," a document you create while you’re alive (duh...). In essence, it’s a thoughtful, loving, practical record of all the information survivors will need to carry out your wishes and carry on with life.

The Diary is where you tell survivors whether you’ve got a will or trust and give contact information for your legal, financial, medical, and religious advisors. In another area you list where important documents can be found, such as insurance policies, investments, bank accounts, a marriage certificate or (perhaps more important!) a divorce decree, your military papers.

In Colgan’s view, one of the most important sections is where you spell out the final arrangements you want, down to the passages you’d like to have read, who will conduct the service, at what church/temple/mosque, and what you’d like done with the flowers. As inconsequential as some of these things might seem (you’re dead, after all, will you really care which Psalm is read?) they can spark major family feuds at this highly emotional time. ("Dad always said he wanted to be cremated." "No he didn’t!")

Moreover, these aren’t generally the kind of details you’d put in a will. But they’re important- especially to those who survive you. In Colgan’s view, "It can bring your family peace of mind to know that they are carrying out the wishes of the deceased in a way that honors what he/she wanted."

An equally important section, in my opinion, is the one titled "People to Notify" — the friends and acquaintances your family might not even think of, such as your Thursday night bingo buddies. If you’ve ever sent a greeting card and then received a note saying that person passed away, you appreciate what I’m talking about.

Under "Household Maintenance" there are places for the names and phone numbers of everyone from the plumber you’ve trusted for years to the mechanic you always took the car to. This information can provide invaluable comfort for a surviving spouse if he/she wasn’t the one who typically took care of these issues.

Imagine the widow who finds herself along in the home she’s shared for 30 years. She doesn’t want to move out; most people aren’t ready to make that big of a decision for awhile. But now she’s got to deal with everything, including the things her deceased husband used to handle. With the information in The Diary she could look up the individuals and companies her husband used instead of blindly turning to the phone book to find a service person.

As Colgan says, "It’s the small details that can make the big difference." As the survivor, the information in the Diary gives you an extra level of confidence that you’re using the right person, an individual who is family with, says, the quirks of your gas heater. Sounds trivial. But when you’re grieving the loss of someone who may have been your best friend, anything that gives you comfort and reduces stress is welcome.

The Diary even has a section for the person entrusted with caring for your beloved pet after you’re gone- the name of the veterinarian, vaccination record, and so forth.

It’s important to understand that the information you enter into The Survivor Assistance Diary is not legally binding. If your will gives your Rolex watch to your brother, you can’t change that by naming someone else here. You’ve got to update your will.

As its name implies, the information in The Diary is meant to assist those who survive you. In this sense it can speak for you in your absence, especially when it comes to issues that are not included in legal documents such as a will or trust- important details about the day-to-day aspects of your life and how you want to be remembered.

You can’t take away the pain or the emptiness that loved ones will inevitably experience when you die. But you can make it easier for them to get through the mundane, everyday issues that can complicate and slow the grieving process. That’s what The Diary does.

As a set, The Survivor Assistance Handbook and The Survivor Assistance Diary retail for $19.95. However, Colgan has agreed to give readers of this column a 20% discount: both booklets for $15.95 (plus S&H). You can order via email at orders@survivorassistance.com or call 1-585-419-2271. Be sure to mention you read about them in this column!

By the way, Colgan’s website, http://www.survivorassistance.com, has great information for individuals who have lost loved ones as well as those who are terminally ill. There are also links to other helpful sites.

Hope this helps,

Gail

Income Tax Break for Charitable Donations to Tsunami Relief Efforts

Congress and President Bush have rushed through legislation designed to encourage Americans to contribute to charities providing assistance to victims of the Asian tsunami.

Donations made through January 31st can be deducted from either your 2004 or 2005 tax return.

There are a few key conditions:

1) Your donation can only be in "cash". This includes checks and credit card donations, but not clothing or household goods.

2) The donation must be made to a "qualified" charity that is specifically involved in the tsunami relief effort.

3) You have to itemize your deductions when your file your income tax return. Be sure to keep a record of your contribution.

As with all charitable contributions, to be deductible, they must be made to an organization that is registered with the I.R.S. under Section "501(c)(3)" of the tax code. In most cases, these will be U.S.-based charities. To be on the safe side, you can check out a charity’s status by visiting the USAID website: http://www.usaid.gov/locations/asia_near_east/tsunami/ngolist, or the website for USA Freedom Corps: http://www.usafreedomcorpt.gov.

Note to AMT sufferers: Although the Alternative Minimum Tax eliminates many other deductions, it does not affect charitable contributions. All charitable contributions are fully deductible.

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