After Loss Professionals such as Rachel Donnelly play a unique role for all there is to be done after someone has died. Different from an attorney, more nuanced than an organizer, and with the know-how to do far more than just drop things off at a thrift store, Rachel can act as the ”air traffic controller” to manage the entire project of settling an estate. Whether it involves going through probate, deciding what to do with collections of unknown worth (Grandpa’s gold coins? Mom’s silver?), or filling out cumbersome out-of-state forms (transferring a car title in Minnesota?) – Black Dress Consultants can help!
Diane Hullet: Hi, I’m Diane Hullet and welcome to the Best Life Best Death podcast. Today I am talking with Rachel Donnelly of Black Dress Consultants, and I think she’s got some really interesting things to share with us about, you know, what do we do after someone dies? So
Rachel Donnelly: welcome Rachel. Thank you so much for having me Diane.
It’s a pleasure to be here. I love
Diane Hullet: your business name and I think it first caught my eye probably on Instagram and I was like, black Dress Consultants. To me it’s so evocative of like a time in our history when it was like everybody better have a black dress on hand. Yeah. I think funerals have changed and that isn’t necessarily, they
Rachel Donnelly: have the case.
Diane Hullet: But we still have that image of like, it’s time for the black dress. It’s
Rachel Donnelly: time for the black dress. Exactly. Yes. Yes. I just love your
Diane Hullet: title, your, your business name. So tell us about Black Dress Consultants and how you got into this work.
Rachel Donnelly: Yeah, so I created a business that I really felt was lacking and there was a real gap in the market in terms of logistical.
And administrative support for families who had experienced a death in the family. So I lost my father when I was 16 and then I lost my mom about 10 years ago. And my kids were very small at the time and I was working and. Doing all the things. And when my mom passed away I had to start taking care of her brother.
My uncle who was in latter stages of Parkinson’s, he lived in a completely different state. We were his only family. So not only was I now managing the logistics of probating and settling my mom’s estate, including my mom had three homes, including one that had been in our family, passed down. For several generations since 1890.
Wow. So I had to clean out all of these homes and then manage the logistics of making sure my uncle’s estate planning documents, his power of attorney, his healthcare proxy. All of that was up to date, and I thought, my goodness, this is so much work. And why is it there a project manager? To help with this.
There are wedding coordinators for when you get married. There are, you know, all these services that you have when you buy a house or you have a baby. But there, I didn’t feel that there was a project manager type. For death and we, this is something we are all going to experience. So I thought, what am I missing here?
Okay, necessity is the mother of invention. I’m going to create it. So I did. And black dress consultants is a nod. My mother my mother was an expert in Victorian mourning and she was a, a research librarian and historian and used to serve as a docent at a very historic cemetery here in Atlanta.
And my sister and I used to do rock paper scissors of who would drop her off because it was like dropping off this giant. Black blob out of our car. So it’s really, and there’s a great picture on my website of her a picture that was taken by the New York Times and of her and all of her gear. So it’s really a nod to the traditions of, of mourning.
Cuz it, it’s fascinating when you really look back at that, what women, especially widows had to go through when they lost their husbands and all of the rules and processes and procedures. So it’s a nod to that.
Diane Hullet: Oh, it’s a great nod and I, I get that you really, you came to it really through your own experience.
Yeah, and I love the, I love the term project manager, cuz you’re right. Mm-hmm. If we plan an event, we can call someone in processing the aftermath of a death. Depending on the complexity of the person’s life can be. An enormous undertaking and yeah, my experiences, it takes about a year for everything.
Rachel Donnelly: Yeah.
Diane Hullet: Be
Rachel Donnelly: settle. I, I’d say that that’s on the good side. Yeah. There’s varying estimates out there that show it takes an executor on average between 470 to 570 hours on average, you know, of effort to settle in a state. And that’s if everything is. Possibly in line, and it’s pretty straightforward, right?
My mom’s estate took me seven years before I was discharged. You know, my uncles took me two and a half after he passed away. And so that’s a tremendous amount of time to put on someone, and especially someone who’s working full-time and has kids of their own. And regardless, you’re grieving. So I really thought it robbed me.
A lot of my grief, experience and grief journey, and I didn’t have that space to really grieve my mother’s death and then my uncle’s death because there were just so many decisions that I had to make. And if that’s, at the end of the day, if that’s anything I can do for someone and help give them the space to grieve and get back to the things that matter, then that is the whole reason I started this and that that makes me feel.
Diane Hullet: Yeah. Yeah. Talk a little about like what are the categories of things people have to deal with? Yeah. Like if you took broad categories, what would you say? I.
Rachel Donnelly: Yeah, so I’d say, you know, it’s, well, of course after you’ve had the, the funeral and or the memorial service and, you know, getting of the death certificate.
So it’s, you know, the disposition first and foremost. And then, you know, you really have to start marshaling and inventorying all of the assets, all of the liabilities. Is there any property that needs to be secured? Are there any. Dependence from pets to, you know, to, are there any children, of course at home that need to be, you know, taken care of?
And then, so start really compiling like all those assets and those liabilities. Where are all of their accounts? Did they have, you know, life insurance? Did they have retirement or 401ks? How did they pay their bills? You know, and were they done online? Were, you know, will that paperwork come to the house or be mailed?
So those are sorts of, you know, the first couple of things. And then notifying the institutions you know, from social security. So, To your insurance agent, to the va to your alma mater. On and on and on. There are just so many different organizations or categories of, of places that need to be notified.
Friends, family colleagues And then, you know, if the estate needs to be probated, do you need an estate attorney to help you with that process? And then fulfilling all of your duties as the executor. And there are a lot duties filing a tax return for your dis, you know, your loved one for the year in which they lived, if they earned any income or.
And then once you start settling the estate, you know, preparing the estate to be settled, distributing distributing property. But one of the biggest things I think that causes a lot of stress is disposing of someone’s tangible property. The estate clean out you know, all the photos, all of. Know the clothes, their, you know, the, that can cause a tremendous amount of stress for families.
And yeah, just all of those decisions based on, and that’s a very, and a very abbreviated list of all the things that need to be, to be done. But that’s why, you know, a lot of these to-dos. You shouldn’t be an expert in these. You hopefully are only going to have to do this once in your life. So that’s why, you know, we feel it’s so important to, to be able to call in some help and have that extra hand to sort of streamline.
Prioritize and triage
Diane Hullet: tasks. Oh, wow. I mean, I think my blood pressure is rising just period. I know, I know. Oh, yeah. And I really appreciate the way that you kind of talk about it in, you know, it’s like there’s this, and then there’s this, and then there’s this, and, and your services can help at all those different levels, it sounds like.
Yeah. Yeah. Do you have people that you lean on who help you? In these, because I, I can’t imagine when you do all the paperwork and all the tangible
Rachel Donnelly: Yes. Stuff. Yeah. So I have what I call my empathetic detectives behind the scene that help me to ev every situation with every client is different. This is a one size fits one business.
There are millions of variables of the different needs and circumstances of a client. So having that backend support of, okay, what form does this? Company or custodian need to transfer close or archive an account and was the process for retitling the car in Minnesota. So looking up all of these very granular details.
So I have sort of my backend support and then I lean on some of my team members to oversee the estate cleanout and then tons of resource partners to help me with. Selling grandpa’s gold coin collection or is someone, is this a Van Gogh or did somebody buy this on a cruise ship? You know, so really trying to, to drill in and come up with the right protocol or for many of the decisions.
Diane Hullet: Wow. Right, because when you think about it, it varies from state to state, like a lot of these, correct? Mm-hmm. A lot of these laws, mm-hmm. Like you said, how do you retitle the car in Minnesota? Might be different from how you retitle the car in Atlanta and For sure. Correct. Different
Rachel Donnelly: form, correct. Yes, yes.
So everything is different. Every process is different. Every state has their different terminology and jargon. I mean, probate, I think, is already such a mysterious process to many people. And while I’m not an attorney, you know, I help clients to sort of demystify, sort of break down that process. Under the guidance of an attorney, if they are going that route to help them fulfill their duties and, and sort of, you know, help simplify it.
Diane Hullet: Simplify it. That’s really what you’re trying to do for people. Yeah. Say this is a complex process and I can help you simplify it. Yeah. What
Rachel Donnelly: like what,
Diane Hullet: how, I almost wanna say like from X to Y, like what is the range of what you’ve
Rachel Donnelly: seen? Oh my goodness. You know, I, I did this post not too long ago about the presumed superpowers of executors that, you know, when someone dies, that they’re expected to be mind readers.
You know, so making these decisions of that they don’t, they don’t know what their loved one would’ve wanted. Like I said, is this a priceless piece of art or is this complete junk? I. So, you know, there’s that, are they, so don’t expect them to be a mind reader or an an an art appraiser or anything like an antiques dealer.
So, you know, there’s been so many things that I’ve had to deal with that really heartbreaking, you know, issues that keep me humble. You know, many of the aspects that cause a lot of complication these days is not having your digital. Estate organized. And what I mean by that is it used to be when we would settle in a estate, you could sit at home and wait for the mail to come and you could sort of do that inventory of all their assets and all of their debts.
Our lives are, we, we get electronic statements. Our lives are in a cloud. Our lives are on a computer or a external hard drive or an an unlocked code to your phone that may have. Your photos, your videos, things on that, things like that. So your digital assets are a huge component of not only, you know, your estate planning, but then settling an estate.
And so I’ve seen many heartbreaking instances where a loved one didn’t have the unlock code to their loved one’s phone or know how to access their loved one’s computer or if they were a sole proprietor of a business. So, Who owed them money? Who did they owe money? What did they do, their banking did, was there life insurance?
And then, like I said, you know, what would they have wanted done with their belongings was, you know, did they want a certain person to receive that old beat up truck in the back that maybe we don’t think is a lot, but was important to them for some reason. So, like I said, there are so many different variables that with better planning, Better documentation.
Being more intentional can really help to prevent, I call ’em dumpster fires. I like to say that I help prevent or manage dumpster fires.
Diane Hullet: Do many people call you ahead of time?
Rachel Donnelly: So about 30 to 35% of our clients are in what I call the legacy planning area. So, We have sort of a step-by-step process that we walk clients through doing an inventory of where are your documents, what’s missing, how old are they?
Who has access to them? Is it under the bed? Is it in a, in a safety deposit box? So really trying to, to. To create the treasure map, I guess, and create a central repository for those documents. Yeah. And then the digital estate organization is a big part of it. So those are sort of the cornerstone aspects of all of my, I have three packages.
Those are the mainstays of, of all of them, but yes,
Diane Hullet: absolutely, and, and if you’re listening, you can absolutely hear the layers of this. And how helpful it can be to organize even just a few things. I think of the 80 20 rule a lot. Yeah. It’s like you could do 20% of the work and get 80% of the benefit, so 100% if nothing else, if you’re listening, make sure that you’re.
Partner, child, sweetheart, friend, knows how to get into your phone and your computer. Like if that’s all that came outta this Exactly. Would actually be a huge Exactly right. Yeah.
Rachel Donnelly: 100%. Yeah. Because a lot of, I think the most important things that we lose when, you know, you lose a loved one. Is, you know, maybe if you didn’t have access to their phone and losing those, those photos, those videos, you know, I know when I lost my parents, I didn’t know who a lot of these people were.
And in the. And the, these photos, were they neighbors? Were they somebody I was related to? You know, how was my, you know, how are, like I said, how am I related to all these people? Are they important? So having a lot of that information and then just having, you know, access to them can just go such a. Such a long way.
Diane Hullet: long way. And I’m struck too by when my mother-in-law, the year before she died, she started giving away jewelry. Ooh. And it was so smart because she knew what of her jewelry was good stuff. And what of her jewelry was, you know, Toss away cubic zirconia not worth anything. And I didn’t know the difference.
So she made very deliberate choices and started shipping off her jewelry to people, including giving some to my fairly young daughters at the time. And I remember kind of thinking, well, Donna isn’t this, you know, a little premature, like you’re not dead yet. And my kids are really young and, and she was just so clear.
I know who I want this to go to and I’m giving it to them
Rachel Donnelly: now. Oh my gosh. She’s my hero. I, I mean that, that is awesome. I. Like I’m such a huge fan of that. Do it when you’re alive. Yes. And you know the meaning behind it. Yes. Or if not, record yourself of saying, this is a bracelet that my grandfather gave me when I was five, and this is where it came from.
Because you’re right. So many people don’t know is this sterling? Is this gold? Is this.
Diane Hullet: Is this meaning list? Do you care about this piece? The only thing I wish I’d done, so this is where the the non hero part comes in, is, yeah, I didn’t write the stories down and so there were a few pieces where I look at it now and I’m like, I know there was a backstory to this.
I don’t know what it was. So I, I, I regret not, not in a giant way. I can live with this. Yeah. But I wish I had sat with her and just simply taken some note cards. I know. And jotted down what she had to say about the pieces for my kids or her nieces. Yeah. But
Rachel Donnelly: there’s a fantastic app out there called Artifacts.
Ooh. It’s a great company. I know one of the co-founders. It’s an amazing app where you can, it’s basically where stuff and stories meet, but in an electronic form. So you can take pictures and then add a story and or take a photo of a piece of paper. If it was your mother’s first job offer that she got 1962 or something like that.
You don’t wanna hold onto the paper, but you want to have, you wanna preserve that. Story and a photo of that memory. So it’s a great, great tool. It’s called artifacts. So I would strongly recommend that would’ve been a great thing for you to use. Not to give you more, more guilt, but
Diane Hullet: it’s Yeah. Yeah.
You could have done that. You could have done that. I love this phrase, we’re stuffing stories meet, because I think about that. It’s like when we talk about the stuff aspect of your work. Yeah. It’s, it’s, you know, our stuff is just stuff except for the stories behind it. Yeah. So I bet you run into a lot of dumpster fires you’re managing where you don’t know any of the story and you’re just, you don’t know.
Yeah. And then you probably have somewhere you do know some of the story. Yeah, I’m, I’m struck too, like there seems to be this like, I don’t know. There’s this interesting middle ground that I think maybe your services are trying to figure out. So like, you know, there’s a bunch of stuff that’s going to the thrift store and the used bookstore and maybe some family and friends, and then maybe some people have really exquisite things that some auction house is buying or something like that.
Yeah. If you’ve got that kind of thing. But what do you do with the middle stuff? What do you do with the, yeah. $500 pair of earrings that are just kind of nice, but nobody wants ’em.
Rachel Donnelly: Well, can, you know, I feel like all I do is burst people’s bubbles all day long because so many, I can’t tell you the number of times people have said, oh, I’ve got this stuff and it’s worth X, Y, and Z.
Perceived value and market value, or just too, totally different things and. Markets change, tastes change, things go in and out of style. So I really like to take a step back and say, okay, what do we really have here? And just because your great grandmother bought this Persian rug in 1929, that doesn’t mean that the moths haven’t eaten it to pieces and your cat may have, you know, scratched it up.
So that I, I really try to. Well, people’s expectations. Yeah. But I say, listen. What is most important to you? Like is it that this is going to go to someone who loves it, then keep it within the family If you can. You’re never going to get probably the amount that you have in your head, but there are some amazing options out there.
You know, national Rarities is an amazing company that I use a lot and I recommend to clients to help. They will. L take a look at, you know, a lot of the things and the main things that I see, the in, in houses, coins, jewelry, antique toys you know, things like that. And you could even submit pictures online and they’ll give you their thoughts and perhaps say, you know, we want more information.
But yeah, there are so many, many options out there. I’ll never do a one size fits. Fits all. You know, I don’t say, oh, you have to do an estate sale. Oh, you have to send this to auction house. It is very much a customized plan, and then at the end of the day, sometimes. I’m just like, listen, this is a service.
This is not going to be a moneymaker experience. The joy of, of giving this to an organization who is going to be able to, to make money off of it and, and use it for, for their community or what have you, because so many people get caught up in the stuff. And it, it can really weigh you down.
Diane Hullet: It can really weigh you down.
That’s so, so well put. So I’m guessing that’s, you know, if we ask the question, so how does Black Dress Consultants help? How do you help? Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. That sounds like a big piece of it.
Rachel Donnelly: Yeah. So the majority of our clients are in after loss consulting space. So what that means is we usually work with clients for a six month engagement.
I create, and we have clients all over the us. So we have what we do is we work together to create a customized plan that includes a one hour onboarding, a one hour offboarding. We meet every other week for 30 minutes. I create a Google spreadsheet and I assign me and my team tasks. I assign the client tasks, and then we just sort of, Start ticking away at these tasks and then try to find the best option or options for decisions that have to be made.
But like I said, we can help serve clients from any part of the us. You don’t have to be in Atlanta or Georgia. Because you know, a lot of times you just need someone to bounce ideas off of, or I need research on this, or I don’t know who’s the right person to call about this, or does this sound right?
I, like I said, one of my goals was to really provide that continuum of care.
Diane Hullet: For clients, I’m actually struck by, it’s almost like having somebody keep, you know, keep you on task. It’s just like having something to touch base with and say, okay, I tried the Department of Motor Vehicles and I couldn’t comprehend the website.
Mm-hmm. What do I do now? Or, I’ve got this final bucket of rings that I just dunno what to do with, what do you suggest? Yeah, yeah.
Rachel Donnelly: Yeah.
Diane Hullet: Yeah. That’s really neat. Do you do you have other cohorts, I know you also founded, helped to found something called. Oh
Rachel Donnelly: pals, professionals of After Loss services. So when I first started is I really struggled what to call myself when I went, when I was on the soccer field or soccer game with my kids and people like, what do you do?
And I couldn’t really say, I’m a death manager. That really stops people in their tracks. So when I found other, These were all women who had very similar businesses to mine. We sort of started connecting and we created a business together called Professionals of After Loss Services, pals with the goal of being the community, the association, the organization for training education, networking for after loss professionals.
So we are about to launch our spring cohort. We offer our training program. It’s a six module training program. We offer it twice a year in the spring and the fall, and it starts March the third. Oh. So yes, I think that’s so
Diane Hullet: I mean, for people like, it seems like the pandemic when everybody was staying home really kind of I, first of all, I think it brought death into our lives more clearly.
Yeah. Then I think it brought the weight of our stuff into our lives more clearly. A hundred percent. A lot people cleared out.
Rachel Donnelly: A lot of you, yeah, a lot of people cleared out and, you know, estate planning really took was, there was a boom in estate planning during that time cuz people really took a, took a longer look at their own mortality.
But you know, as we’re coming out of, you know, the pandemic, we have a lot of grief, we have a lot of, you know, unresolved issues. But, you know, also, I think Sure you have, and, and I, I, I have, I came to this. With my own reasons and with my own background, my own experiences, and the people that we have connected with who want to join us and become after loss professionals alongside us, share that experience that you know that they had that loss or they losses and they wanna do something about it, or they want a career with purpose and meaning.
And we have, we are giving you the easy button. To teach you how to be an after loss professional in weeks rather than the, the fumbling and the bumbling and the mistakes that we all collectively made. We feel that it’s so important for there to be. Trained ethical after loss professionals out there.
This is a service that everybody’s going to need. They just don’t know they need it yet. They
Diane Hullet: just dunno they need it yet. Yeah. It strikes me as so perfect for people who love organizing. Like this is like different niche for organizing. Yeah. And. Oh yeah. I just love this. So you’re providing a service of training people as well as providing a service to families and, right.
It’s really soup to nuts. It’s really, it is, yeah. It’s tough to paperwork, to walking you through. And it’s not about, what I really hear you saying too is it’s not about you taking it over a hundred percent. It’s about how do I hold you? Yeah. Through this. Yeah. There’s things do, there are
Rachel Donnelly: different styles of after loss professionals.
I sort of serve in a proxy. Role, but some serve in more of a coaching role. So it really depends on what the, the Afro loss professional. We really dig into a lot of those nuances. But yes, I mean, and it’s really also up to the, the client, what, what do they need? What is going to best suit their needs and circumstances.
So we really try to, to meet that where, meet that client where they are. Well,
Diane Hullet: thank you so much Rachel. I just think this is such an interesting niche and really appreciate your time.
Rachel Donnelly: Yeah. Thank you so much for having me. As you can tell, I get really passionate about this. I could probably talk about this for hours, so it’s great.
I appreciate your time. It’s great. Well,
Diane Hullet: you can find out more about Rachel’s firstname.lastname@example.org with an S on consultants. Mm-hmm. And you can find out more about the work I do at Best Life. Best death.com. Thanks so much for listening.