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How To Talk With Your Parents About Estate Planning

As parents age, a paradigm shift occurs. As children, we look to our parents for everything but as adults, we find our parents looking to us for help. Talking to our parents about making an estate plan is an important step in life, but we must recognize that it can be a really scary and uncomfortable topic. And, if they’ve never worked with a lawyer, getting the help of one to make sure their estate plan is valid and accurately reflects their needs can feel intimidating if they’re uninformed. Removing those emotional blocks begins with encouragement and a reminder that the result is not only well worth the effort but also the shortest path to finding peace of mind. Here are some tips to get the dialogue started.

1. Coordinate with your siblings, if you have some.

If you have siblings or other affected relatives, speak with them first so everyone is on the same page before you collectively approach your parents. This not only avoids confusion and closes any existing communication gaps, but it is also helpful in preventing future misunderstandings or the inadvertent exclusion of anyone important to the discussion.

2. Address the elephant in the room!

Acknowledge that you understand that it’s a difficult subject matter, but that starting the conversation now will lead to solutions that bring both peace of mind and an organized strategic approach that protects them and the entire family. You can say this: "Mom and Dad, we know there are other things that are way more fun to talk about, but let's get this going so you can rest easy that things are taken care of the way you want and that no one can make that decision for you." Sometimes, just coming out with it is the best way to say it!

3. Prepare a list of questions or topics.

Have a prepared short list of questions to guide the discussion. Each person may surely raise additional questions but opening with a few of the more pressing topics is a great starting point. These may include:

Who should be the primary decision-maker for healthcare issues? If you have brothers and sisters and one or more of them are in a healthcare profession, it might be easy to identify and designate that person with the relevant professional education or experience to handle all of the health and medical decisions.

Which one of the adult children should take the lead in managing financial or business matters? One of you might be the most levelheaded or are already experienced in assisting your parent or parents with business issues. If it becomes apparent that several people might be right for this position, it could be even more reassuring to assign a primary person with the others serving as backups. Again, these questions are often quick and easy to answer when considered ahead of time. It also helps to address whether it is more beneficial to divide and conquer by splitting up the duties or delegating all the responsibilities to the most capable and willing person among the group.

What financial resources exist and would be available to support your parents’ retirement, or even their incapacity? This is one of the most important topics since it involves money and raises the need to examine the realities of their particular circumstances. No situation is perfect but a great place to start is to brainstorm some potentially available options which might reveal some new possibilities for making arrangements that would otherwise seem unlikely or unavailable. Oftentimes, one of the most wrenching and difficult problems that arises is when sudden illness or injury leaves a parent incapacitated, and in those critical first moments, no one has a clue as to how or where the money will come from to pay for their care, treatment, living arrangements, and other necessities. Another unfortunate truth is that if someone you love suffers a medical event and receives treatment in a hospital, once their condition improves beyond the initial emergency, they can be discharged from the hospital, yet still far from recovery. Where will they go, what resources will they need, and who will care for them? This is among the most critical issues that must be addressed in your discussions.

Would they be comfortable to make one of the children an authorized signatory on one of the bank accounts to be used only in the event of extreme emergency? What about final arrangements and their preference for organ donation, or funeral decisions? The key to building a great estate plan starts with asking these practical questions.

4. Reassure them that the process is for their benefit.

Emphasize that you’re not prematurely or selfishly laying claim to their assets, but that your concerns rest solely in helping them to create a logical plan of action that serves and protects their well-being and their assets, both during their lifetime and after their death. These are the people who raised you and took care of you. Reassure then that this process is about taking care of them.

5. Remind them they are not alone and that making a plan empowers their wishes, not the default rules that the courts will apply in the absence of a plan.

Emphasize that you’re all in this together and that working as a team is the surest way to facilitate their personal preferences and wishes, not leaving these important decisions to chance and the default rules of the state that courts will apply in the absence of a clear and carefully considered estate plan. Let them know that you’re motivated to help them take advantage of all the tools and resources available to them as well as preserving their decision-making power.

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