How to talk with your parents about their estate plan, even if they don't want to
Photo courtesy fo Sherri Stinson
- Having a conversation about estate planning with your parent or parents could be uncomfortable, but it will save your family lots of heartache and even money in the future.
- To start, find a segue into the conversation, like a family event or news article. Then, plan a conversation with them and make sure all siblings can be involved.
- Look for the critical parts of an estate plan, like healthcare surrogate and Power of Attorney designations, and both living and last wills.
- Remind your parents that they're not alone in the process, and that you're there to help if they need it.
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No one wants to have the conversation with their parents about what will happen when they're gone, but it's a conversation that needs to be had.
Florida estate planning attorney Sherri Stinson says having this conversation isn't rude or fatalistic. Rather, it's about following their wishes. "Estate planning is the ultimate act of love," says Stinson. "You're showing the person that you care about their well-being and that you care about things going the way they should."
Stinson says that a conversation about estate planning should be about empowering your parents to make decisions for themselves, even if it can be scary. "I always tell people in my practice that this is about making your voice heard and getting what you want," she says.
Here's how to make the conversation happen with your parent or parents.
1. Don't put it off
"The best time is now," Stinson says. "Anything can happen at any time." Putting off estate planning and the conversations surrounding it won't make anything easier.
While some people put off estate planning for the cost, Stinson says that ultimately, that doesn't help either - having to go to court over an estate is much more expensive. "If you end up in front of the court, you're going to spend two, three, sometimes four times more," she says.
By taking care of it today, you can make sure that you, your siblings, and your parents are protected if something happens.
2. Ask if your parents are working with an estate planner, or help them find one
If your parent or parents haven't started the process of estate planning, now is the time to find someone to help. Searching for an estate planning attorney or a financial planner who specializes in estate planning is a good way start.
"When you go shopping for someone to do your estate planning, make sure that it's somebody who does it regularly," recommends Stinson. "You're not going to go to a gastroenterologist for heart surgery, right? You're going to go to the person who specializes in it."
Once your parents have done the preliminary steps of planning, you'll want to get your siblings involved and talk about it.
3. Plan the conversation, and find a reason to talk about it
Stinson says that having a prompt to initiate the conversation can help make it less difficult. "A lot of times, you can use things like news articles to kind of segue into the conversation," she says. Other times, it can be effective to use a recent family event to start the conversation, or start by being transparent your own planning.
Additionally, Stinson recommends planning the conversation in advance. "You don't want to catch them off guard," she says. Set a time for the conversation so that everyone can be prepared with the right paperwork and, most importantly, the right attitudes.
4. Make sure the whole family is involved and knows the plan
Talking about estate plans as a family can help ease the tensions that can come with that kind of conversation. "If you make it a family conversation about knowing what your parents want, that will take some of the pressure off," Stinson says. Additionally, going over this as a family can help ensure everyone is on the same page, and prevent squabbling when the plan needs to be put into motion.
Stinson has found that having one sibling managing the whole estate planning leads to problems. "I get phone calls all the time where someone will say, 'Well, my mom and dad wanted me to make a will, and want me to handle everything,'" she says. "But you have to look at the flip side of that. If you've been the one guiding and controlling the conversation, and then you get a lot more than your siblings, somebody's going to be upset," she says.
Having everyone involved ensures that "nothing is being done in secret," Stinson says.
5. Know what you're looking for, and who will be in charge of what
A full estate plan will encompass everything from who makes the parents' healthcare decisions if they can't, to financial plans, and even a trust, if needed. Stinson says that estate planning is divided up into two parts: incapacity planning and death planning.
Incapacity planning focuses on wishes and decision-making if the parent or person can't, including:
- Who makes healthcare decisions on the parent's behalf. Often called a "healthcare surrogate," documentation is required for you or a sibling to make decisions about your parent's care on their behalf.
- A living will. Not to be confused with the last will that passes assets and property, a living will spells out a person's wishes for healthcare decisions, including things like life support and organ donation.
- Who will control their finances when they can't. Someone may need to make financial decisions on your parents' behalf, and that means someone will need to have Power of Attorney, a designation that allows them legal power over things like banking and healthcare planning.
Next, make sure paperwork is in line for the second part of estate planning: death planning. Look for:
- A last will. The last will is the document that delegates what assets and property goes to whom.
- Know if there's a trust established. Trusts aren't a part of everyone's estate plan, but they can help. A trust is a fiduciary agreement that can help protect funds meant for family or charity from taxes and fees. They're not only for the ultrawealthy, however, and typical families can benefit from them. However, Stinson says they can be unnecessary in some situations. "If somebody comes to me and they only have $20,000 or $30,000, I'm probably not going to set up a trust," she says. Your estate planner can help you decide if a trust is right for your family.
6. Encourage them to ask for help, and remind them that they're not in this alone
It might feel like the tables have turned at this point: After years of goading you to take the right steps in life, it's your turn to do it to your parents.
"There's a paradigm shift that takes place as your parents start to age," Stinson says. Now, you're the one they may be turning to for help, and estate planning can be one time that's very apparent.
Your parent or parents may be afraid to talk about it. Or, there's a chance that parents may not have done any estate planning yet, or haven't done so adequately. Stinson recommends letting them know that you're there to help. "For some people, going to see a lawyer can be like a really big and scary thing," she says. "Let them know that they can ask for help with this."