This is an article from Hunter Law Office (http://www.hunterlawoffice.net) in Fishers, Indiana, that we thought others may find helpful.
A friend recently asked my advice about how to approach the topic of his parents’ estate planning, without offending them or seeming intrusive. He’s worried about them. Aging is inevitable and the reality is that in many cases, it is the adult children who become the decision-makers when crisis strikes. As with any crisis, planning ahead can make a significant difference and for many of us; it is up to us to get our parents thinking in that direction.
So … how do you bring it up? The simple answer is that there is no simple answer. There are factors to consider:
The Status of the Relationship: Anyone with a family – and that’s just about everyone – knows that these relationships can be easy or not-so-easy. Developed over lifetimes, family can be some of the most challenging and complex relationships for any of us. Stop and take an objective look at yours. What is your “role” in the family? … Are you the kid everybody turns to for advice? … Are you the kid who keeps everything light and entertaining?… Are you the kid everyone avoids?… Do your other family members trust you?… Are you trustworthy? Be objective, not defensive – don’t make excuses. Take an honest assessment of the family structure and the status of the relationships before moving forward with the “conversation”. It may be best to approach your loved ones quietly and privately or maybe it makes more sense to include your siblings in the conversation. Think this through and consider discussing the issue with a sibling, trusted friend or advisor before approaching your parents.
The Health of Family Members: If your loved ones are in failing health, this is a definite consideration when discussing planning. Much of estate planning is about what happens BEFORE death, in addition to how things are managed after death. For instance, someone must be in charge of financial and personal decisions if your loved one becomes incapable of making decisions. Dementia, Alzheimer’s, a stroke … can all have a serious impact on the ability to make decisions. While it’s best to have a plan in place prior to a decline of mental status, it may not always be possible. If your loved one is in failing health, but is mentally capable, it is absolutely the right time to have this conversation. Find out if there is a role for you to play in their plan.
Communication Style: We’ve worked with many families who tell us that their parents refuse to discuss their finances because that is “simply not done in their family.” It’s true that many of us are hesitant to discuss our private financial matters with anyone, including (or especially) family. This must be taken into consideration when approaching such a delicate subject. You may want to approach the subject privately at home, rather than bringing it up at lunch in a busy restaurant, for instance.
No matter the circumstances, please understand that this is an important conversation. Sometimes we have to be a bit uncomfortable temporarily in order to provide for our (and our family’s) comfort in the long term. Below are some tips to help you make the most of this conversation:
- Schedule a specific date and time to sit down with your parents to discuss their affairs. Tell them that you are coming over next Saturday and would like to spend some time talking about important matters with them. Ask them to set the time aside for you – maybe offer to bring lunch. Be sure you reassure them that there is nothing wrong (they will think you’re dying or something … remember, they are your parents!)
- Don’t bring your kids or your spouse (yes, your parents love your kids and spouse – but that doesn’t mean they want them in this conversation!).
- Invite your siblings, if that is appropriate (see Relationships, above).
- Eliminate distractions – turn off the television and silence your cell phone – you don’t want to be interrupted. This is a serious matter and should be treated as such. You want them to know that they have your full attention.
- Sit at a table – the dining room works nicely. There is something about sitting around a table that makes the conversation easier – I have no basis for this statement other than my own observations.
- Be honest and speak from the heart – Explain to your parents that you are concerned about their well-being, and want them to know that you are there to help if they need it. Just as they have always wanted you to have the best possible life, you want them to have the best possible life, and you want to be sure they have planned accordingly. Ask if they have done any estate planning, and, if so, how long has it been since the plan was reviewed. Explain that you are seeking clarity around any role that you may be asked to play on their behalf, i.e. Power of Attorney, Trustee or Executor. Tell them that you are not in this for yourself, rather, you know there are pitfalls and misunderstandings that happen and you want to be sure that their wishes are carried out without fail.
- Remain Calm. Don’t allow the conversation to tumble into a conflict or argument. If things begin to get heated, take a break and allow everyone to gather themselves. Then speak calmly and honestly.
- Offer to help. They may be unsure of where to start – and may be intimidated by the very concept of planning. Offer to help them through the process – but also offer to stay out of it! You want them to know that you are there if they need you, but that you are not forcing your opinions on them. Ask if they would like you to help them locate a qualified attorney – then do it.
- Follow Through. If they ask for your help, follow through immediately. Make the call or conduct the internet search, or whatever is necessary. Do not allow the distractions of your life to take this off your radar. You’ve gotten through the hard part (the conversation), now make sure you do what you promise – otherwise, the subject is closed and you may not be able to re-open it.
- Be a Grown Up – No matter your age, to your parents you will always be a child. Be aware of this, and acknowledge it. But remember, you are a grown up and are taking responsibility as such. It is very easy to fall into the comfort zone of being “your parents’ child” when you are in their presence. Resist this temptation and understand that you are asking them to see you differently, if only for the purposes of this one conversation.
Families can be the most rewarding and most challenging of our relationships. Having grown-up conversations with your parents is not easy, but I encourage you to take the steps in this direction. It would save you and your loved ones from unnecessary stress later. I promise.