Bryan Kelly and Howard McComas IV Partner on Family Love Letter Project
As co-founder and principal owner of The Kelly Group, a family-owned wealth management firm based in Bel Air, Bryan Kelly is justifiably confident about his estate planning skills. So, once he and his wife, Kathy, had signed their estate documents, he expected her to be pleased with the wonderful planning they had put in place. After all, this is part of what he does for a living. But when he asked her if she now felt prepared were anything to happen to him, her response came as a bit of a shock.
“I expected her to pay homage and thank me for taking us through this process,” says Kelly. “Instead she told me that if I weren’t around it would be utter chaos. She said, ‘I wouldn’t even know where to begin. Where would the money come from to pay the bills? What happens to your business? How would I find all your documents? I know you keep a lot of valuable information online – how would I access that? I’d be completely lost.’”
It became clear to Kelly that they had laid all the bricks, but little of the mortar. “That experience gave me the faith and confidence that we needed the ‘Family Love Letter’ as part of our estate planning portfolio,” says Kelly.
A comprehensive program like The Family Love Letter is a critical estate planning tool to help avoid “chaos,” alleviate confusion, facilitate communication and provide all the necessary information family members need to know in case of one’s incapacity or death. Kelly’s wealth management firm has teamed up with McComas Funeral Homes, another family-owned Harford County company, in using the Family Love Letter concept to help their respective clients properly plan their estates, effectively convey their final wishes and tell their personal stories to their families. It is designed to provide information in a time of confusion and to help minimize the types of inadvertent mistakes that often occur in times of turmoil.
Kelly explains that a certified financial planner and an estate planning attorney developed the Family Love Letter after both had witnessed the mishaps that can occur. In fact, when the father of the attorney who co-founded the Family Love Letter died, he wanted to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery, but the son did not know where the form was that is necessary to obtain burial at Arlington. “There is a lot of dysfunction when you lose a loved one,” says Kelly.
Recognizing an opportunity to provide his clients additional clarity via the Family Love Letter when it comes to estate planning, Kelly reached out to Howard McComas IV, president of McComas Funeral Homes
. The two men had become acquainted while serving on the Board of Trustees of Harford Community College. “It was fitting that we met while serving at a community-based institution like Harford Community College,” says Kelly. The fact that both companies stress planning – The Kelly Group works with clients to build their financial plans and implement strategies to reach their financial goals, while McComas Funeral Homes helps families plan and implement funerals – made the partnership between the two companies a natural one.
“This partnership helps our clients because we can pick up the phone here at The Kelly Group and call Howard’s group, and I know our clients will be taken care of in a trusted way,” says Kelly, who notes that it’s been an eye-opening experience for him to see how the funeral industry works. McComas adds, “I have not met anyone in the community whose business aligns so perfectly with ours. This partnership works because we are in alignment on a personal level, too. And, after all, Harford County is built on personal relationships.”
A Gift of Time, Love and Clarity
The Family Love Letter is a gift – of time, love and clarity – that provides loved ones with necessary information and acts as a catalyst for family communication. “The Family Love Letter allows you to have that ‘Talk of a Lifetime’ with your family members, which will bring your family even closer,” says Holly Kimble McComas, part of the sixth consecutive generation of funeral directors at McComas Funeral Homes. “It also provides your family with all the necessary details for funeral planning, which are the last things you want to be dealing with when you are grieving,” she says.
Both Kelly and Howard McComas say that it’s not necessary for one to complete the entire document – the comprehensive plan is almost 40 pages – but opening the Family Love Letter to almost any page is a great starting point. Section I covers ‘Advisors and Assets’ – names of financial professionals, attorneys, accountants, primary care physicians, as well as account information for IRAs, retirement plans, stocks and mutual funds, and even airline frequent flier information.
Section II covers financial liabilities – mortgage, car loans, credit cards; Section III covers insurance; and Section IV lists legal documents and desired funeral arrangements, including pallbearers, who should give the eulogy and tombstone engraving.
By consolidating such varied information, this document can help prevent major mistakes and oversights, even while the client is still alive. For example, the founders of the Family Love Letter relay an instance where a man had a significant life insurance policy, and the premium was drafted automatically from his checking account. When he was no longer able to handle his own affairs, his children closed the checking account, inadvertently canceling the policy since the auto-draft for the premium could not take place. If a Family Love Letter had been in place detailing all insurance information, this may have been avoided. “These things really do happen and they have huge financial impacts. These examples and many other ones are ways we can relay to our clients how important this document is,” says Kelly.
Perhaps the most impactful information contained in the Family Love Letter is found in Section V, “Family History and Ethical Will.” Here the author lists family members and family history, as well as a written legacy with insights such as “It is my hope that my family will use its inheritance from me to accomplish the following goals/dreams in their lives” and “This is how I would like to be remembered.”
“I love oral history, which has been lost over the generations. Wills are straight-forward instructions to the court to finalize your affairs but the Family Love Letter helps tell the individual’s story,” says Kelly. Howard McComas also stresses the importance of family history and the ethical will. He says, “I interviewed my grandfather before he passed away at the age of 96 and learned how he fled Czechoslovakia at midnight when the Nazis invaded his village. Once your loved ones are gone, those stories are gone, too.”
Kelly points to a recent call he had from a client who is terminally ill. “He said that since he had done the Family Love Letter, he could spend the final weeks and months with his family instead of scrambling to get his affairs in order. I don’t know of a better gift than spending the final chapter of your life with your family and not running around at the last minute to meet with your attorney,” Kelly says.
The Family Love Letter can also eliminate any confusion on personal property disposal. “We itemize all the way down to a stamp collection, so family members know what their Mom had and who should inherit each item,” says Kelly. “If you do estate planning online, it does not cover Aunt Millie’s bowl that everyone wants – not for material value but emotional value. Suddenly you have several people fighting over it and never talking to each other again.”
Howard McComas adds that the document helps one make their final wishes clear. “I tell the story of two daughters planning Mom’s funeral. One daughter says, ‘I know that Mom wanted to be cremated and have a simple reception at Magerk’s Pub after.’ The other says, ‘No, Mom is Catholic, and she wanted a viewing and then a full mass and buried at St. Ignatius.’ This situation will not end well. The Family Love Letter eliminates this confusion, as everything is written down in his or her own words,” he says.
Kelly says that his firm can also help mediate in situations such as a family beach house that is bequeathed to surviving children who either cannot financially care for the house or simply don’t want the burden of a second home. “We have also written trusts so that those expenses are paid for in the future and not a burden on the survivors inheriting the house,” says Kelly. “And, sometimes there is guilt – ‘Why did I get all the money?’ The Family Love Letter gives the reasoning behind certain gifts, and when it comes from the patriarch or the matriarch, it has weight.”
Integral Part of the Community
Both The Kelly Group and McComas Funeral Homes have deep roots in the Harford County community. McComas Funeral Homes is a six-generation company that has existed for more than 200 years. The Kelly Group was founded by Bryan Kelly and his uncle Bill 20 years ago. Both companies are actively involved in many nonprofits and local events and see helping their clients with proper planning as an extension of giving back to the local community.
“By being a local, family-owned firm, there’s accountability to this community because we are out in the community every day,” Holly McComas says. Howard McComas says, “From a service and trust standpoint, The Kelly Group and McComas can provide that local touch as two family owned, generational businesses.”
“I use the example of going into a Wawa where you order a sandwich via a touch screen, then pick it up and pay with a credit card … you never talk to anyone. People have been accustomed to that mentality in their daily lives, so when we sit down and spend multiple hours to learn all about you and your loved ones, people are surprised. They have become accustomed to companies trying to speed through the process and move on to the next customer. We tell our clients, ‘Slow down; it’s all about you today,’” Howard McComas says.
Holly McComas stresses the importance of pre-planning a funeral. “Pre-paying takes the burden off of your family and pre-planning allows the individual to express exactly what they want,” she says. “When you’ve
worked with families for years, you know the history of the family, and you can help guide family members because you knew the deceased well,” says Howard McComas, adding that his company has always treated clients as extended family members. This close rapport with clients can be beneficial during the actual funeral. When planning for a funeral for a woman who made outfits for plays, the staff and family members wore hats that she had made. The Kelly Group helped a family orchestrate having a fire truck at a funeral for a loved one, too.
Both Kelly and Howard McComas see the importance of getting out in the community and presenting the Family Love Letter concept. Recognizing the impact it can have on the community, Kelly and Howard McComas have made several presentations at Upper Chesapeake Health, another local institution that shares a similar vision and values with The Kelly Group and McComas Funeral Homes. “When Howard and I present together, it provides a visual connection of the relationship between our two industries,” says Kelly.
“When Bryan introduced the Family Love Letter to us, I thought it was an incredible concept,” says Ken Ferrara, vice president and executive director of The Upper Chesapeake Health Foundation. “While a will details how assets are to be distributed, the Family Love Letter allows the individual to tell whom they are as a person, allowing them to pass along their story, their legacy. As someone who works in philanthropy, I also like how it allows the individual to share which charities they are passionate about with their loved ones. It’s about the legacy of the individual and what they want to pass along to others.”
Ferrara says the presentations by Kelly and McComas are part of The Upper Chesapeake Health Foundation’s educational series it holds for its volunteers so that they can learn about important topics. “No one wants to talk about when they will no longer be here, but the Family Love Letter provides a roadmap for one’s wishes and allows you to pass along your core values,” Ferrara says. The Kelly Group and McComas Funeral Homes will be conducting future presentations on the “Family Love Letter.” Contact either company to sign up and to learn more about the Family Love Letter.
While the younger generation benefits from the Family Love Letter as recipients of crucial information from the older generation, Kelly and Howard McComas agree that it is never too early for someone to complete a Family Love Letter of their own. “For my generation and my children’s generation, the idea of planning tomorrow, let alone end of life, is not top of mind. The urgency is not there and sometimes the wealth is not there yet; however, there are ramifications if you do not plan ahead and communicate your wishes to your loved ones,” Howard McComas says. “All generations can benefit from the Family Love Letter. It provides a great opportunity to pass along critical information from one generation to the next.” I95