Dr. Mary Dorn

*Editor’s Note: CC Biz Buzz is a monthly column series that features insightful commentary from a member of the Columbia College Robert W. Plaster School of Business faculty.

This column is one that I never really wanted to write, but, in hindsight, it is likely one of the most important that I will write. Monday, April 15, 2024, the dreadful “tax day” was upon me, and I was at a local funeral parlor making the final arrangements for my spouse and partner of 23 years. I kept thinking of the famous quote by Benjamin Franklin, “In this world, nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes.” I found this fitting for the day, as my spouse had always referred to herself as a “tax widow” during the months of January through April. See, I and our youngest son own a financial services business in St. Louis that prepares approximately 1,300 tax returns each year. During these months, I generally work seven days per week and am not home much, to say the least. If you knew Geri, you would understand that her feisty nature turned the tables on me in the end, and I am, in fact, the “tax widow.”

Geri passed away after a valiant 18-month battle with cancer. We knew when she was given the diagnosis that our lives together would be short-lived. While we were both optimistically pragmatic about our future, we were also given the opportunity to talk about our lives together and my future without her. This is not a gift I take lightly, as many are not given this opportunity. We would have celebrated our 23rd anniversary on the 26th of this month, and as an out-lesbian couple, our life was not always easy. But here is the silver lining of that life: We had discussions about our life as a couple regarding health care, finances, and end-of-life decisions very early on in our relationship. As Geri’s health deteriorated, the decisions that were asked of me, while heartbreaking, were easy because of the discussions we had early on. We were not able to legally marry until 2015, so we had all of our legal documents in order very early on in our relationship. This was required if we wanted to have a say in each other’s lives prior to our legal marriage. We carried copies of our Healthcare Power of Attorney in the glove box of our cars, just in case. We knew what we wanted in terms of life support and had this spelled out in our living wills. So when the doctors asked me about an Advance Directive (DNR) and a feeding tube, the answers were known and in writing if needed.

My degree and background are in Personal Financial Planning. If asked, the majority of people would generally state that their reason for seeking financial planning advice is to ensure that they are on track for retirement. Their investments will meet their financial objectives, and so on. While this may bring you to a financial professional, a certified financial planner™ (CFP®) has been trained to review a client’s full financial picture. This includes their estate planning goals, not just saving estate taxes, but the estate planning documents such as the healthcare power of attorney, will, trust, financial power of attorney, nomination of guardian, etc. Many individuals and families put these discussions off and pay a price in the end. Think of Prince, Aretha Franklin, James Gandolfini, James Brown, and endless other celebrities who never got around to taking care of this, leaving a mess for their heirs. Think of the Terri Schiavo case, in which her husband wanted to remove life support. Terri was in a persistent vegetative state, but her parents opposed it. Terri and her husband, Mike, did not have any of these estate planning documents, and the courts eventually took 15 years to settle the case. This was a tragic set of circumstances, and regardless of which side of the argument you may be on, everyone in this family needlessly suffered for 15 years.

My hope in writing this column is that you, the reader, will think about my family and know that while our hearts are shattered, we are at peace with all of the decisions we made, as we had determined those decisions far in advance of the need.

Lastly, I would like to acknowledge the sheer capacity for compassion, love, and support that I and my family received from countless friends, neighbors, colleagues, clients, and students. In a world that seems so divided, I can attest that the better angels among us are forever present.

Dr. Mary Dorn is an assistant professor of Finance in the Columbia College Robert W. Plaster School of Business.