Contributed by Stephen W. Butler.
Conversations about death and dying are rarely fun. Most people avoid them because they invoke feelings about our inevitable demise. Broaching this subject can be particularly difficult for parents and their adult children. Adult children may avoid bringing up the topic because they do not want to think about their parents’ mortality, and they may also want to avoid sounding as though they are waiting for their parents to die.
Despite these valid challenges to having conversations about death and dying, you should not avoid the topic. Your parents will die at some point, and having a plan to care for their money and property when they pass away will preserve their legacy and help them care for those they love most. Having this difficult conversation will also ensure that your parents have a voice regarding their end of life or when they can no longer make financial or medical decisions for themselves. Due to advancements in technology, these conversations are increasingly important because more people are likely to experience a time when they are still alive but unable to make decisions for themselves. In the absence of conversations about these scenarios and a legal delegation of decision-making authority, state law governs what happens. Those default rules may not reflect your parents’ wishes. In addition, failure to have your parents’ wishes properly documented may result in their heirs having to engage in expensive and time-consuming court processes.
Once you understand the consequences of not having those conversations, the next question is how do you raise the issue with your parents? There are a number of different approaches, though no particular one is necessarily better than any other. The following are some key ideas to keep in mind if you want to have this conversation with your parents.
- Do not nag. If you are trying to persuade your parents to talk about completing an estate plan, the last thing you want is to make the process and yourself an annoyance. Instead of engaging in a productive conversation, you may inadvertently create an atmosphere where your parents start avoiding you or become suspicious of your motives. If your parents hesitate to have these conversations, explore ways to bring up the topic without leaving them with their guards up.
- Be open and honest about your concerns. Being truthful about your worries is a significant challenge when discussing what will happen to your parents when they die or if they lose the ability to make decisions for themselves. Every family is imperfect, and oftentimes, areas of concern indicate delicate family situations. To facilitate the best conversations about estate planning and to achieve effective planning for your parents and their legacy, you must address the awkward family issues. You must ask the difficult questions now, when your parents are available to provide their insights. Also, it is essential to have all the necessary parties, such as siblings, stepchildren, new spouses, and former spouses, involved. As your parents embark on these conversations, let them know that you support them. Prioritize understanding their wishes and helping them to protect those desires. Ensuring that all the parties involved are in generally good health is another consideration. Having these conversations after someone’s health is compromised may result in decisions that are not considered objectively. In those situations, attempts to think deeply about a plan for what happens to your parents, their property, and their legacy, may be blurred by concerns regarding their health.
- Ask your parents what their wishes are. Find out what your parents want and hope for with regard to estate planning. Do not make assumptions. Be direct and ask them what their ideal situation is. What they say may surprise you. Even if you have had no previous conversations of this nature with them, that does not mean they lack a clear idea of how they see things occurring in the future. The problem is that they may not have the plans in place to realize their vision. Asking them about what they want brings them one step closer to making their vision a reality.
- Discuss the planning already in place. In many cases, parents do some estate planning when they start their family and never update it. Therefore, your parents may have some documents about what should happen if they can no longer make decisions for themselves or if they die, but the documents are no longer relevant because they do not address the changes that have occurred in the family over time. As a result, asking them about what they have done in the past is a critical component of having an effective conversation with your parents. Specifically, ask your parents if they have any of the following documents—and if they do, the documents should be reviewed
- past wills
- past trust documents
- powers of attorney
- HIPAA authorization forms
- insurance policy and retirement plan beneficiary designations
- Include benefits to their children and grandchildren. Finally, addressing how your parents will build their legacy through their children (you and your siblings) and grandchildren is critical. A common sentiment among grandparents is that grandchildren are their reward for not letting their children drive them crazy, so they often have a significant desire to provide special allocations for their grandchildren. The form and method require serious consideration, given the unique dynamics between children and grandchildren. Explore how your parents want their money and property distributed and whether your childless siblings will receive less. Again, navigating this area requires great tact and wisdom.
If you approach your parents about end-of-life planning and you can all have clear conversations about the topics addressed above, you will be establishing the right foundation for effective estate planning.
You Do Not Have to Do This Alone
If you feel overwhelmed by the steps discussed above and you would like a neutral party to help facilitate the conversation and provide guidance regarding how the estate planning system works, our lawyers are available to help. Call our office to schedule your in-person or virtual meeting with us to begin the process.