Twin Certainties

Don Southworth

COMMON WISDOM TELLS us that we all pay taxes and that we all die. As a semi-retired minister, financial coach and tax preparer, I’ve gained an unusual appreciation for these two certainties of life. But never more so than this year.

I began my first congregational ministry in August 2001, two weeks before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The first class I offered was titled A Year to Live, in which we met over 12 months to plan and prepare as if we would die at the end of the year. In the aftermath of the 9/11 tragedy, we were each ready to reflect on our own life and eventual death, making peace with as much as we could, while taking care of the spiritual, emotional and practical details surrounding our death. The experience was transformational.

I hadn’t taught the class since my dad died in 2019. I spent his last year caring for him. But this January, I decided to teach the class again, knowing the pandemic has made many people more aware, anxious and curious about death. Then, in February, I began preparing income tax returns again. I realized one Saturday morning, as I read HumbleDollar, that I might have a unique perspective on death and taxes—especially this year.

Cicely Tyson, the amazing actress and icon who died in January at age 96, said, “Why should I be afraid of death—I don’t know anything about it.” But too many people are afraid of death—and taxes as well—even if they don’t know much about either. I find learning about both, especially with other people, makes death and taxes more comfortable or, at least, tolerable. Here are four lessons I’ve learned about death and taxes from my experiences as a teacher, minister and tax preparer:

1. Reflection is powerful. One of the assignments I give my students is to read obituaries and to write their own. I’ve come to see how similar a tax return can be to an obituary and how helpful they both can be to living a better life. An obituary is a summary of a life. If we choose to, we can use it as a way to highlight what we do—and don’t—want to accomplish.

An annual tax return can serve the same purpose. A tax return shows us, from a financial perspective, what matters to us. Are we sharing enough with others? Are we saving for our retirement? Is the money we’re making worth what we are doing? Do our earnings, deductions and taxes reflect what we value most? The bottom line with an obituary or a tax return is that they show us the choices we’ve made. Writing your obituary can change the course of your life. Looking at a tax return with a spiritual focus, as well as a material one, can do the same.

2. Denial doesn’t help. Denying or delaying tax planning and preparation has financial and sometimes legal consequences—and so does delaying plans for our final departure. I’ve seen too many people and families delay talking about death until it’s too late. When relatives gather to remember and honor the deceased, they often do so without knowing their beloved’s wishes. Families fight and argue, often over money, when they should be grieving.

One of the things that always happens halfway through A Year to Live is that participants want to talk about their death and life with loved ones. But all too often, those loved ones refuse to talk. I have seen the same thing happen with couples when it comes to their money and taxes. Silence is not always golden. Sometimes, it’s heart-breaking.

3. Don’t go it alone. Life—as with tax preparation—goes better when we do it with others. One of the most powerful changes people experience in the class is they become more open to talking about the realities of death, a topic we rarely discuss with others. By sharing their fears, questions and curiosities with each other, and with a guide who is trained and experienced in life and death like a minister, they learn and grow in their acceptance and readiness for death.

The same is true with regard to taxes. In my experience, people talk about money even less than they do about death. If we’re able to ask questions of others, including those who are trained in what works and doesn’t work, our acceptance and readiness for taxes and financial planning can grow as well.

4. Worry can lead to peace. I think the most common feelings people express about death and taxes are anxiety and worry. This can be anxiety about being dead. But more often, it’s worry about the process of dying and how it will affect those they love. Being a burden on others is the No. 1 fear people have. Nobody wants to be a financial, emotional or spiritual burden on anyone, but especially not on those we love.

When my dad had terminal cancer, entered home hospice and needed someone to take care of him, I was fortunate to be able to do so. While neither of us enjoyed those intimate acts of end-of-life care, we were both grateful I was the one to be with him and to do them for him. Overcoming my fear of death, and of financial planning and taxes as well, gave me the spiritual and material grounding to do something hard and uncomfortable, and for which I will be eternally grateful.

People often ask me how anyone—but especially a minister—can enjoy doing taxes. Those are people who might prefer to give their dying father an enema instead of taking on the numbers, complexities and doubts that come with taxes. I hear the echo of conversations from A Year to Live in those voices. The fear of doing something wrong or missing something is common both to life and to taxes.

But the truth is, that worry can turn into peace. The purpose of the A Year to Live class is “to deepen our understanding, acceptance and readiness for death, so that we can live with more mindfulness, gratitude and peace.” I could say the same thing about preparing taxes or any financial coaching. Death and taxes are indeed inevitable. But when prepared for with wisdom, they’re invitations to a better life.

Don Southworth is a semi-retired minister, consultant and tax preparer living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He recently completed his Certified Financial Planner education. In addition to teaching “A Year to Live,” he has taught “Financial Management for People Who Don’t Want to Bother.” Don is passionate about the intersection between spirituality and money, and he encourages people to follow their callings wherever they lead.

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