Shane Phillips, a “finance guy” who is no stranger to grief and loss, dives into some big questions with me this week.
We discuss how he got into this work and the broad categories of paperwork we all manage, no matter how simple or complex our financial situation.
These categories include personal documents, asset documents, legal and tax papers, and liabilities.
- How do we get these together so that upon our death, others have access?
- How might we learn what we don’t know in our own households, so there are no surprises?
- And if we are in charge of managing the paperwork after someone dies, where do we begin?
As I note in the podcast, “It’s a big piece of adulting when you are in charge of an estate, whoever it belonged to!”
Diane Hullet: Hi, I am Diane Hullet and welcome to the Best Life Best Death podcast. Today I’ve got a special guest, Shane Phillips and Shane is here as the founder of First Steps Help, and Shane is gonna tell us what that’s all about. So, hi, welcome, Shane.
Shane Phillips: Well, thank you so much for having me, Diane. It’s great to be on your podcast and you know, first Steps help is kind of a multidisciplinary platform to help people navigate financial matters after the loss of the loved one.
Diane Hullet: Huge, right? So when somebody dies, kind of, no matter where people land on the economic spectrum, there’s a huge amount of work to be done in the financial and legal departments. So you’ve really kind of created a platform to help people wade through that murky water. Not murky water for some, but murky water for a lot of us.
What, how did you get into this work?
Shane Phillips: Yeah, great question. Obviously I didn’t anticipate doing this when I was younger, but, so when I was 16, my parents and sister were killed in a plane crash and we were originally from Denver and we were living in the Washington DD area. And I was not with my family because I was overseas studying abroad, and I’d been just for about a month when they passed away.
And so, When I experienced that loss, I inherited a business, a small business that my parents had, you know, real estate, a lot of debt, no life insurance. And so really from a very early age, I was exposed to the challenges that, that people encounter when someone passes away. So I kind of dealt with that myself along with some other people in my community.
Fast forward. I came back to Denver. I went to the University of Denver. I started my career in finance and banking and in 2003 I started a nonprofit called child grief.org. And the purpose of child grief.org was provide free grief counseling in the metro debt area. And we served 400 kids over the course of seven years.
Fast forward to 2010. My wife and I had just had our fifth child. My career was super busy and I felt like I couldn’t manage this anymore. And so the Heartlight Center is a nonprofit that was started by Horan McConaughey Funeral Homes. And I offered them a program if they could continue it, and they said yes, but I wanted to join the board.
And so now I was. I had been working with children, but now I was working with adults, primarily widows and widowers. And as I’d grown in my career in banking and finance and learned a lot of different things I, I started to observe when I would go to the group meetings that it didn’t matter whether it was the husband or the wife that that passed away, if that was the person that managed kind of the day-to-day financial affairs.
The other surviving partner pretty lost. And so that’s where I endeavored to take everything I’d learned in my career and my, my passion for grief care and create a resource that didn’t exist. I, I searched, I mean, there’s 1,001 books on grief, right? But not a lot of information about what new from a financial perspective when someone passes away.
Diane Hullet: Such a needed area. Just incredible. And so, as you said, you created this platform in part for the Heartlight Center, for them to have a way to present this information to people. And, and what kind of challenges have you seen, obviously in your own experience, and what kind of other challenges do you see people face?
Shane Phillips: Yeah, I mean, they could be very small, but infuriating. Or very large that, you know, kind, kind of shifts the pendulum in a fan. I’ll give you a couple of examples. You know, if, if you’re not familiar with how to log into bank accounts or investment accounts that’s a little tiny thing, but can be infuriating, right?
I worked with a lady here in Colorado. Her husband passed away. She was referred to me and she didn’t know how to log into their bank accounts. Didn’t know what their budget was. I mean, she just was not at all involved in anything as it related to running their household from a financial perspective.
And she didn’t know if her husband had life insurance. And so I really started at ground zero with her. We went to her bank. She was able to get a login. We printed off 12 months worth of bank statements, and I wanted to see, okay, how are they actually spending their money? And so I went line by line by line through all these bank statements just to develop a budget.
This is grocery store, this is gas and so forth. But there was one line item that kept reappearing. Monthly, it was an ACH transaction for $43. And so we had her bank kind of trace that it turns out it was a, a payment for life insurance for her husband that she didn’t know about. Ended up being over a million dollars.
And you know, I said it can shift the pendulum for a family. She was able to keep her house, put her kids through college. So the challenges are, Immense. Some people have it really dialed, but people don’t.
Diane Hullet: Wow, that is, I think that is, that story just encapsulates it, right? That at the extreme of not knowing quite how it’s all pulled together at your house and what could have been missed without you catching that.
If, you know, if she’d said, oh, I don’t even know, and whatever, I’m not gonna worry about that little $43. But it turned out to be really key. Yes. Are there, are there some universals that happen for people? Like how do people even begin to get their heads around what areas they need to be prepared for or focused on?
And when I say that, it actually occurs to me that really, these are two different things. One is sort of what have you done to prepare. Financially for your family so they know what’s there and how to find passwords and so on. And then what do you do after someone dies? So there’s kinda two different sides we can talk about this from.
Shane Phillips: There really are so, you know, preparation is key. Unfortunately, 70% of Americans don’t have an estate plan which that doesn’t have to be a complex plan. It’s just a, here’s where the bank accounts are. Their transfer on death or their joint. So. Answer your first question. I think there’s always some universal concerns around, okay, am I gonna have money?
Am I gonna have access to money? And then how do I get access to the money? So, and, and that that spans, you know, all economic classes. And so that’s, that’s a big area of concern. But the, the second half of it is, Okay. Maybe your partner thought that they had done everything to prepare, but if they forgot one or two things, it can still make it challenging.
So he, here’s a piece of advice As the, the father of kids in their twenties and their teens, I am on my kids, my wife and I are both on our kids’ bank accounts, vehicle titles, investment accounts, anything that’s of value. None of them are married yet. And sadly I’ve worked with a number of families where.
22 year old, you know, kid killed in a car accident. Mom and dad can’t access the bank account. They can’t do anything, you know, with any of their personal property. So there’s a lot of kind of nuanced things that people can do on the, the preparation side to, I mean, and nobody wants to do it.
Nobody wants to think about it. I joke that I wrote. The book that every person in the world has to read that nobody will read. This is just not something people want to do, but So, yeah. Does that kind of answer? Yeah,
Diane Hullet: that’s good. And I think the bank account thing goes the other direction too. I know I have a friend who, he went back to visit his mom, he was probably in his forties at the time, and he said, you know, mom, I think it would be a good idea if I got on your bank account.
And she agreed. And so they, they made that happen and about three weeks later she had a stroke. And he said, you know, the fact that I was on her bank account made everything seamless. Yes, because he could write checks, he could, or, you know, be organized for that. And he said, oh my gosh, I just shuder to think of how difficult it would’ve been to access simple things.
But as you said, you know, you’ve gotta be willing to have that conversation. You’ve gotta be willing to say, Hey, mom or dad, or, Hey, 18 year old. Actually, it’s important as a family that we stay on each other’s accounts and You know, you’ve gotta have the trust there that nothing’s gonna happen, and it’s gotta be the right relationship and a long series of conversations.
But those simple things, knowing a phone password, oh boy, that’s, that’s huge these days. If you don’t have a way that somebody can get in your phone, that’s just a whole bunch of information and photos that they have no access to.
Shane Phillips: Yeah, a actually, that brings up a conversation I had recently with someone.
So as we’ve moved from, you know, a passcode that you put into your phone to a thumbprint now to facial recognition changes the dynamic on who can unlock that phone. And I have a friend whose son passed away and they were able to give the coroner the phone and they were able to do a visual. Unlocking it.
And that’s something that nobody wants to think about, but it’s a reality of kind of where we’re at today.
Diane Hullet: Yeah, that’s just huge. It’s huge. So people need to think about financial papers and they need to think about passwords. Mm-hmm. And they need to think about what else.
Shane Phillips: So, I mean there’s you know, kind of a variety of things.
I have it broken down into several categories and I, I spend quite a bit of time on this both in my online class and my book. And then within the book really break out kind of the nuances of why you need each document. So there’s. There’s personal documents, and so that’s gonna be, you know, birth certificates, death certificates military records, employer contact information, maybe divorce papers, you know, anything that would, anything that relates to you legally as a person.
So that’s kind of the personal document category. Then the next thing is asset documents, and that that can be wide ranging for. Each household, depending on how they’re structured. But that can be investment and brokerage statements, life insurance policies, pensions, IRAs, 401ks, certificates of deposit, bank account information, checkbooks, notes receivable, and even motor vehicle titles.
So those are all the things that say, Diane owns this, right? And So it’s important to have kind of a listing of those. Then you get into kind of the legal documents. So do you have a will? Do you have a trust? May need divorce papers. Prenuptial agreements that might stipulate where assets go if there’s children from multiple marriages.
Here’s a big one, and I’ve, I’ve dealt with this, and this is a real challenge, is if somebody owned a corporation or an L L C or partnership with somebody that was not their spouse. That can create major issues unless you’ve addressed in the formation and the operating agreement for those entities, how you would handle, you know, if I own a lawn mowing company with, with my buddy Joe, I die.
Does my wife now own 50% of the lawn mowing company? And then kind of the last thing on, on the legal side is you know, deeds and deeds of trust to property, which is, that’s the document that says that you own it free and clear. And then probably more challenging things is if it was your spouse or even an adult, adult child or a parent you’ll likely have to file.
One more tax return for that person. And so getting a hold of previous year’s tax return is, which will kind of help you figure out what you need to do on the final year is important. And then the last category is really debts. Liabilities. And, and I wanna preface this with, I’ve worked with a number of people that have, you know, Been concerned or they immediately say, well, we have to pay off Bob’s credit cards.
Well, you, you might not have to because if he owned those solely, and you’re not a joint owner you’re not necessarily obligated to pay this. Right. So there has been a discussion that was passed that prevents creditors from ruthlessly pursuing people for payments until an estate be settled. So the, the items to think about from a, a debt standpoint would be vehicle leases unpaid bills, notes payable, auto loans, credit cards, mortgages.
I do wanna make a special note on unpaid bills. Things like your water, and if you still have a home phone in any other utilities, a lot of times that could be up in someone else’s name. And so if the utility company finds out that they’ve passed, they may say, okay, we’ll let you set up a new account or service is done, apply for a new account.
I’ve seen it happen both ways.
Diane Hullet: Interesting. This is great, Shane. This is, I mean, just laying it out in these kind of four categories of, there’s personal documents, there’s asset documents, there’s legal and tax, and then there’s deaths and liability documentation. That’s such a good big picture way to think about all these important things and, and again, you’re really, you’re talking both about how do you.
Get your ducks in a row before you die, if you have time to prepare for that. And then, you know, if we’re in charge after someone dies, where do we even begin? So, you know, we’re not trying to give financial advice here on the, on the start to say on the radio, on the podcast showing my age. But you know, just to kind of give people an overview and say, this is really important to look into.
Shane and I are not the financial advisors who get. You know, are liable for this advice, but we can say these are important things to look into. So Shane has written a book and has an online education course that I, that I think are both aimed at people who are dealing with this situation and the financial and legal professionals who are helping people in these situations.
Do you wanna say more about that?
Shane Phillips: Sure. Yeah. So as I alluded to before, the kind of genesis of writing the book was seeing that. You know, most people were not prepared. And then as, as it has evolved with the way technology is today, creating that online platform where someone can go and re-watch the video, watch it again, watch it again, download all of the documents from my book, but the stuff that they need, you know, but this really addresses.
Kind of post-death. I am working with a group out of Scottsdale, Arizona to address pre-death, and so it’s essentially an online platform where you can put all your passwords, your logins, Your will, your trust. You can even create a recta for your pets. And you can have all of this in one place for a pretty low annual cost.
Very secure. It, it has a mechanism where you kind of pick who your trusted people are so they could log in today. And you would be notified that your son or daughter was logging in, right? If you get a notification and don’t respond in a certain amount of time, they will get access to all of that information.
So I, I think technology is at a a a, a place today where it’s easier than ever to log all of this and have a, a safe place to store it. So that when when you pass, you don’t need my book. Yeah,
Diane Hullet: I love it. I love it. I, I think you’re right. I think the evolution of how these things are managed will keep happening.
And at the same time, I think we all need all the books and all the websites to kind of get us churning on this. And I always tell people, you know, I feel like there are a lot of different ways to approach this, and you kind of have to figure out the one that works for you. Mm-hmm. So if you’ve got a fireproof safe and you’re going to give a couple people that code, and you’re gonna have your.
Passwords printed out and tucked in the safe. And that works for you. Have at it. And if you’ve got a way that you know, another way that works for you that’s online or in a book or there’s a variety of ways to organize this information. The important thing is take a stab at organizing it. And if someone has died and you’re in charge, Get some help.
If you need the help, if you, if you’re d i y and you’ve got this, then power to you. But otherwise there are good places to get help, to get checklists, to get information, to be able to move forward. Because I just heard recently that the average estate takes something like a year and a half to settle. So That’s correct.
It’s a lot of work and we have to be prepared for it. The other thing, you know, my husband said this the other day, he said, the other thing nobody tells you is that, There will be so many new skills you have to bring to bear to this situation. So, you know, in his case, his mother was the second to die and he had to figure out things about her.
Documents like we’ve talked about here that, that he hadn’t known before. And he said that’s, I think the kicker. He said, you know, I’m a smart guy. I can figure out a lot of this stuff. But there were skills there that I’d never done and had to do, and I think everyone is gonna have to go through that.
It’s a big piece of adulting when you are in charge of an estate, whoever it belonged to.
Shane Phillips: Yes. And I, I would add that as you said that there are kind of a variety of ways to deal with this. There has been an emergence of services that will literally take everything off your plate. They’re licensed and bonded insured, and they will walk you down the path.
There’s self-help, stuff like my book and website, and then there’s stuff in between. One of the things I do talk about, And my writing is, if somebody has never had to hire a financial advisor or a CPA or a bookkeeper, any sort of financial professional, I kind of go through and explain, okay, this is how these people are paid, right?
And so these are kind of the pros and the cons of, you know, dealing with different folks and these are the things that you need to be aware of. Again, To your point about life skills, if you, if that’s not been something you’ve had to do in your household how do you know which questions to ask? Yep.
Diane Hullet: Yep. Because that, that could be the title of this podcast. How do you know which questions to ask? Right. Yeah. Well, Shane, I thank you so much for your time. I think this has been a great, it’s like a tip of the iceberg kind of conversation, but I think you’ve laid out some really interesting things for people to think about.
And why don’t you tell us your website? How can people find out
Shane Phillips: more? Yeah, so it’s www. Dot First Steps help.com. And there’s quite a bit of free information on there some free videos. And then if you feel like you want more information, you can take the full course. I also offer individual Zoom.
Financial counseling, just in terms of helping you kind of get a plan and more resources will be coming out. I’ll give you a sneak peek real quick. My next resource is going to deal with social media. And what do you do with the over 100 different social media platforms that are out there? Because they’re all different in terms of what you do with somebody’s profile.
Diane Hullet: Fantastic. Oh my gosh. When that comes out, let’s have another podcast. Let’s talk Okay. About that in six months or something. That’s great. Yes. Well, you can find out more about the work I do at Best Life. Best death.com. And again, I’m Diane Hullett and thanks to my guest Shane Phillips.
Shane Phillips: Thank you.