Talking to Your Parents About Estate Planning

Each family approaches the subject of end of life and the preparations they have made for the day when they are no longer here very differently. Some families have no trouble discussing any subject. For others, sensitive topics make them feel uncomfortable.

Unfortunately, the result is that it is often easier to never discuss these subjects. This is in large part of the reason that nearly 70% of the people who die never even left a simple will.

What about your family? Taking the time to talk candidly with your parents about estate planning can help to ensure that they have their affairs in order long before you have to say goodbye. That said, I recognize that this isn’t an easy conversation. It can be awkward and upsetting for everyone involved. Fortunately, there are plenty of things you can do to make the conversation easier.

I have been practicing estate planning for over 30 years here in Michigan. We sit down every single week with a family of someone who has recently died. So very often, the failure of a family to have an estate planning talk is the difference between a smooth estate settlement that is handled quickly and economically — and a mess that leaves a family with headaches, unnecessary costs and sometimes a year or more in delays.

Why is Estate Planning Important?

Most people understand that creating a plan for your parents’ estate is an extremely important way of ensuring their property ends up where they want after they are gone. While discussing what happens after they die isn’t a fun conversation, thinking of it like this can make them feel more empowered in the conversation. After all, you are there to give them support not to tell them what to do.

Organizing a simple plan makes things a lot simpler once your parent or parents have died, especially if you have a big family. It is also a nice way for them to recognize special relationships by gifting certain items to friends or family.

Bringing up this topic is never going to be easy but there are some things you can do to make the conversation as smooth as possible.

Just getting things organized can be a huge first step.

Plan Ahead

When talking about inheritance with your parents, it’s important not to rush the conversation. Planning ahead will make sure that everyone is ready to communicate and that things go smoothly for you.

Before sitting down with your parents, think through what you want to discuss. For example, you might want to talk about:

  • How their estate will be divided up, including finance, property, and personal possessions
  • Who is going to become the executor of their estate
  • Witnesses for their will
  • Getting legal help with their will
  • Who they want to give financial power of attorney
  • Who they want to make medical decisions for them if they can’t
  • Letters of Intent for trustees

There will be a lot of talk about, so make sure you allow plenty of time for the conversation. You might want to give yourself a whole day. That way if they want time to think things over, you’re not in a rush.

Pick a time that works for you, them, and anyone else that you want there. The last thing you want is for people to feel dragged into a conversation that they do not want to have.

If you have any siblings or close family members that may be affected by a will, it is also worth letting them know that you plan to have a discussion with your parents. This can be a sensitive subject so do not gather a huge crowd to discuss it. But letting others know will make everyone feel like they are in the loop with what is going on. One of the biggest points of conflict I have found is when one child initiates a discussion like this and then excludes a sibling or other family members.

Don’t Start Discussing Figures With Your Parents

When you hear people talk about “wills” or “estate planning”, often the first thing that springs to mind is inheritance. While wills do, obviously, deal with matters of inheritance, it is important to manage conversations around this carefully.

Be careful not to discuss exact figures when discussing inheritance with your parents. Discussing finances is very hard for many people. Many well-intended conversations about estate planning end prematurely because of sensitivity over this topic.

Instead, focus on discussions about organizing their estate and possessions. This is about what they can do to control what happens to their belongings after their death. So prioritize talking about what they want to handle rather than bringing up what you want to be left to you.

In fact, it can be easier to introduce the conversation and specify that you do not want to know the details of either their finances or who they want things left to. That way it remains personal to them and does not affect your relationship with them. Instead, the focus is on both the need to get a plan in place, and to let them know you are there to help.

These conversations can take a long time and it is a good idea to make a note of everything discussed. That way they do not accidentally forget something when it comes time to draft their estate plan.

Have a Conversation About Executors

Creating an estate plan is not just about what you leave behind. It is about selecting the right people and giving them the authority to act when it is most needed.

This means that, upon their deaths, the executor (called a personal representative in Michigan, or successor trustee if a trust is used) of the will is in charge of managing the remaining estate. For example, if they own multiple houses it will be up to the executor whether these homes are sold or shared among family and friends.

92% of parents in America assume that their children will become the executor of their estate. And a lot of parents expect this of their eldest child. However, this is a big responsibility for whoever is left in charge.

Because of this, it is a good idea to let them discuss this with whoever they choose. When you first discuss their will, one option is to suggest they put together a list of people they would be happy to have as executors? Then they can discuss this with you and a lawyer to help them decide who is suited for the job.

An estate plan should also appoint someone as a financial power of attorney. Often this will be the same person they would choose as their executor. The difference is that powers of attorney end upon death.

The last, but perhaps most important appointment is who you want as medical power of attorney. This should be the person most likely to be there to assist with doctor visits and providing care when it might be needed.

The focus shouldn’t be on figures, but rather developing a plan that they are comfortable with, and knowing you will be there for them.

Look Out for Handy Resources

No one expects you to be an expert when it comes to drawing up an estate plan. This is why it is a good idea to do a bit of research and planning before you approach your parents.

Be prepared to share your research with your parents and let them look at it themselves. That way they will feel more in control of the situation. Some useful resources providing will and money advice include:

  • Wills and Trust for Dummies by Aaron Larson
  • The Wall Street Journal Complete Estate-Planning Guidebook by Rachel Emma Silverman
  • Get It Together: Organize Your Family Records So Your Family Won’t Have To by Mellanie Cullen
  • You Only Die Once: A Guide to Estate Planning for You and Your Loved Ones by Jeffrey Althaus

You can also seek legal support and advice from experienced lawyers to help you understand how will and estate planning works. However, don’t speak to a lawyer about your parents’ will before speaking to them as this can feel a bit overbearing.

Instead, offering the name of a local attorney who specializes in estate planning so that they can make the call themselves is a better approach. We offer a packet of information on our estate planning services that we are happy to mail to you or to your parents if you simply ask.

Take the Time to Manage Your Own Estate

Putting your own affairs in order is a great way to introduce a conversation about estate planning to your parents. That way they do not feel like they are in the spotlight or that it is because of their age.

This also helps to take the focus off what they are leaving behind and who they are leaving it to. Instead, why not introduce the matter by saying “I was organizing some of my estate paperwork the other day and wondered if you needed any help with yours?”

That way you can offer support without putting too much pressure on them to discuss the details of their estate. Instead, you can share the journey with them and ask for their support and advice along the way. This will make them feel included and important in your estate planning rather than it being a one-sided conversation.

Regardless, just as it is important for them, it is never too soon to get your affairs in order for your younger family.

Get Help With Estate Planning Today!

Talking to your parents about what will happen after they die is not an easy task. Having a plan in place, and approaching this topic with the needed sensitivity can result in getting this done in a way that brings a family closer together and gives everyone peace of mind.

If you and your parents are ready to start planning your estate and want legal support, get in touch with our team today. We’re here to help!

Originally published at https://www.obryanlaw.com on November 5, 2020.

Davison, Michigan estate planning attorney Sean O’Bryan has been helping families for 30 years work through the complicated issues of trusts, wills & estates.