Talking to elderly parents about estate planning

How to talk to your parents about their estate planning. Its an old adage and maybe even a cliche - we don't talk about whats in the Will and its not polite to bring up aging or death with our elderly loved ones.  Yet it is important and necessary.  You need to know if they have a plan and where the documents are kept in case something happens.   Here are some guidelines to help navigate this awkward conversation with your parent or parents.

  • Your intention. Make it clear that your intention in bringing this topic up is to understand their wishes so you can help make sure that they are carried out. If they don’t have a plan it is to encourage them to contact a professional who can help them implement one – tout suite.
  • Their privacy. Your focus in this conversation is not to provide them with advice or haggle over the details of their arrangements, but to make sure that they have a plan and that you are able to locate it should something happen.
  • Concerns that need to be addressed. This conversation is about them. Are they happy with the arrangements that they’ve made; is there potential for conflict amongst their chosen beneficiaries and if so how can this be averted; are they comfortable with the fiduciaries that they’ve chosen or does this need to be updated.  If they don't have a plan why not, what are their fears or reasons for procrastinating and how can you and your siblings help.
  • Include your own circumstances if applicable. If you are in a position where receiving money in trust is important or might be important in the future, convey this or other particular concerns to your parents.
  • If you have siblings keep them in the loop by letting them know you are concerned and are addressing this with your parents.

Ways to break the ice include talking about:

  • Planning gone awry. Talk to them about estate planning horror stories that you have heard on the news (a little celebrity gossip can’t help but break the ice, think Georgia O'Keeffe, Steig Larsson, Thomas Kincaid, etc. ) or through your own experience (your neighbor so and so…).
  • Your own planning. If you’ve done your own estate planning it might be helpful to share with them your experience and what you have decided in regards to fiduciaries, etc., as a way of both breaking the ice and so that they know what your own plan entails and who has been designated to implement it.

If there is no planning in place:

  • If your parents do not have estate planning in place encourage them to seek counsel and get it done. Many clients that I work with are so pleased to finally get this out of the way and express that this is something they have been thinking about for “a long time” and their relief and boost in confidence about the state of their affairs is palpable.  Gently remind  them about the added expense, stress and conflict caused to family members if a person dies without estate planning.  I do not recommend putting pressure on them about this - ultimately its their estate and their responsibility but at least having this conversation in a gentle way might encourage them to tackle this task.