Happy Deathday, Dad

Brett Schatto

It’s not the done thing to talk about death and money in our culture, but we financial advisers are a weird bunch. Brett Schatto wants to chat with you about your (hopefully distant) demise and what that means for your loved ones. Before it’s too late.

Today’s the anniversary of my dad’s death. It always gets me thinking. It strikes me that there are two things we humans are particularly crap at: planning ahead and acknowledging our mortality. And when I say mortality, I’m not just talking about dying in our sleep at a ripe old age after a long, fulfilling life. I’m talking about vulnerability and brevity. 

If you knew tomorrow was your last day, would you live this one as you have all the others? Of course not. None of us would. If you have a partner and kids, or anyone who relies on you, I guarantee every action you take that day would revolve around one thing: making sure they’re looked after once you’re gone. 

It’s strange, isn’t it? We all know that tomorrow is promised to no one, but we all behave as if it is. We need to stop for a moment and consider our mortality. We need to start looking at our financial state as if the end is just around the corner.

Tomorrow is promised to no one

The trajectory of my life has provided me with a different perspective on death. I’m a former member of the South Australian Police Force.  That job is unique and can be surrounded by misery and death, yet I was proud to serve.  Amongst many interesting jobs I attended road accidents, murder scenes and suicides. I stood in front of people (with that familiar look of desperation, disbelief and pain in their eyes waiting for me to say something) as I told them that someone they love is gone forever. 

I watched a colleague and friend, pregnant and newly married, receive a cancer diagnosis at the age of 30. I was humbled by her courage and determination. Two years later I spoke at her funeral.

I’ve lived every parent’s worst nightmare. My son Jordan, nine years old, hit by a car. A sheet covering his face to hide the fatal injuries. ‘Life changing’ doesn’t do it justice. Doesn’t come close. 

And, of course, I’ve buried my dad. Not long before he died, he bought a motor home and planned to travel around Australia with a metal detector. As the executor of his will, I came face to face with the reality of a man who refused to accept he was dying and prepare for the inevitable. Missing documents, liabilities, outstanding bills, jobs un-finished. 

And this brings us to the crux of the issue.

Plan to live as you prepare to die

I was lucky, in a way. Dad passed on as an old(ish) man. I wasn’t reliant on him; he wasn’t paying for the roof over my head or the food on my table. It was the natural order of things. 

Grief is hard. Believe me. It alters you forever. Don’t make it that much more unbearable for your loved ones by burdening them with a messy financial situation. If you have a young family don’t leave them in the lurch.

I’d like to say my dad was of a generation that didn’t talk about things like death and money, but the truth is no generation does. It’s one of our biggest failings as a culture. And I get it; these aren’t easy conversations.

‘Hi Brett, Dad here (crying). I just got my results back and the cancer specialist says I have terminal cancer.’

‘Sit down, son. I want to talk to you about what will happen when I die.’

Not easy, not natural.  But, weirdly, talking with a financial adviser about it is. This is partly because we’re more removed from you personally, but also because this is an area familiar to us. We know what to ask, we know what to look for.  We know how to help you protect your loved ones.

Financial matters are complex, not intuitive. Unless you operate in this sphere, it’s difficult to know that all your affairs are in order. I cannot tell you the number of wills out there right now that aren’t valid, aren’t explicit enough, or simply don’t make sense. And that’s just one aspect of estate planning. 

Where are my relevant documents? Online? In a binder gathering dust in the garage? Will anyone be able to find them? Are my bank accounts payable to a beneficiary upon my death? Is my partner the beneficiary? What if they’re with me in the car during a fatal head-on? How will my kids access the money to pay the bills? What if our kids are young, who will raise them?

My frankness and openness around death has been hard-won, but I do believe it makes me wiser. It’s a unique perspective that I implore my clients to take advantage of. Tonight, I’ll raise a glass to dad and probably think about my own mortality, knowing that when my time comes, those who rely on me won’t be left in the lurch. 

Think about your death for the sake of the living.

Plan for the unexpected (well, it is expected but none of us know our Death Day) and talk to a financial planner, even if you think everything is fine.