Politics. Religion. Finances. Death. What's the common bond? For many, these are traditionally taboo topics of discussion when it comes to engaging with family members. But there comes a time when not discussing the latter two topics — finances and death — with your parents is more detrimental than beneficial.
In this series on estate planning with your elders, we will explore how to open such conversations, what types of issues to discuss (legal, health care, income and expenses, record keeping), and the various documents involved in estate planning.
The goal here is to present measures you can implement to avoid complications and/or prolonged probate and, most important, to promote the fulfillment of your parents’ wishes. After all, as much as we hesitate to introduce the subject of death, death does happen. Having in place a clear plan helps it to happen with respect and integrity.
We will begin with what is often the most difficult part of the process: bringing the conversation to the table.
Make a date with yourself to broach the subject with your parent(s). Put it on your calendar. Set an alert for a day or two ahead, allowing yourself time to clear anything else you may have inadvertently scheduled in the same time slot. No more procrastination.
Consider scheduling the talk near a family holiday or gathering when siblings or others who may be involved in your parents’ care will be present for the discussion. Choose a time of day when everyone will be rested, relaxed and able to be fully present in the conversation. Leave your phone and the children in the other room. Create a simple setting that will feel familiar and comfortable; there's no need to be formal if that isn’t your family’s usual style.
Once the conversation is open — even if you get no further than setting another date to sit down and fully discuss the why's and how’s — you will be glad you took action sooner rather than later. Learning as much as possible before an emergency arises will be comforting to everyone involved.
This might be a touchy conversation for your parents, at least in the early stages. In fact, most of us are reluctant to discuss finances and death. Especially death. Privacy and fear of losing control often create resistance, providing you the perfect opportunity to demonstrate the patience and empathy required for you to be effective in your role.
In addition, a parent’s fear of becoming a burden often plays a part. Frequent reminders that you’re discussing this sensitive matter because you want to be of assistance and because you want to make certain their wishes are fulfilled will help ease their minds and, ultimately, yours as well.
So, how do you start this conversation? Consider the following approaches:
Open with your story rather than theirs. Explain that you (and your spouse if applicable) recently met with an estate planner to discuss options for your family — care for minor children, burial choices, healthcare desires — and you are wondering if they have done the same. This type of opening allows time for them to adjust to the typically taboo topics of death and finances without threat of the focus being entirely on themselves.
Talking about your own choice of a will versus a trust, or your choice to pay in advance for cremation, or the wording of your health care directive, will help them feel more comfortable to reflect upon and share their wishes.
Share the story of a friend. Share the story of a friend who experienced the unexpected illness or passing of a parent to underscore why you want to open discussions now, before an emergency arises.
Understanding the importance of having a will and/or an advance health care directive in place, before they are ill or no longer capable of making such decisions, will save heartache and frustration down the road.
Mention an article you’ve recently read. Begin the discussion by sharing an article about estate planning and/or the importance of talking with your loved ones regarding their financial situation. Remind your parents that estate planning is not just for the wealthy; it’s a way to ensure that, at the time of their death, their wishes are fulfilled.
Enlist a third party. Your parents may be more open to discussing their financial situation with you if the suggestion comes from a trusted friend or professional, such as their doctor or family attorney. Hearing from someone else the importance of having the discussion and asking for help, if needed, may provide just the cushion your parents need to move forward.
Offer to lighten their load. Offer to write their checks, review credit card activity, or do the search for a qualified estate planner and/or attorney experienced in estate planning and elder law, for example. Let them know your goal is to assist them in ways in which they feel comfortable.
Regardless of how you choose to open this delicate discussion, remember to be clear that you are discussing all of this because you want to support their independence, not limit it; that from a place of love and concern you want to support their decisions, not control them.
Assuring your parents of some simple guiding principles you will follow can put their minds at ease: you will never co-mingle their funds with yours; you will always be 100% transparent regarding any financial transactions you handle on their behalf; you will offer information that protects them from scams, especially those targeting the senior population; if called for, you will help them develop an appropriate spending plan.
It’s easy to let months and even years slip by in procrastination mode, thinking we have plenty of time to begin this conversation. Unfortunately, time isn’t always on our side.
The benefits of sooner-than-later conversation and planning are priceless. Remember, estate planning offers a level of security to you and your family, so that if something tragic does occur, you can rest assured that your family members (no matter their age) are cared for appropriately.
And who knows, these discussions (it won’t all come together in one sitting!) just might offer some of the most interesting and touching conversation you’ve had with your parents in quite some time. After all, you’ll be exploring intensely personal decisions and situations: wills and healthcare directives, finances and funerals, and more, all of which we will address in Part II of this series on Estate Planning With Your Elders.
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This information, based on New York law, was provided courtesy of The Law Office of Christopher J. Arrigali, P.C. It is intended to inform, not to advise. No one should try to interpret or apply any law without the assistance of legal counsel.