In a blog post on July 18, I discussed some of the reasons that parents and elders are often reluctant to begin a conversation with their families about their estate planning. Here are five tips to help you get the “other facts of life conversation” started with your own parents or loved ones, as mentioned in this New York Times article featuring input from Stephen Hartnett, associate director of education at the American Academy of Estate Planning Attorneys:
1: Start early.
Many people wait until their parents show signs of memory loss or mental difficulties before thinking about estate planning. The truth is that the process involves complex decision-making and understanding of important documents. The sooner you get the ball rolling, the more actively involved your parents can be in planning their own affairs while they are healthy.
2: Make the conversation non-threatening. Use tact.
Given the emotional issues that are bound to come up when discussing one’s last wishes and final arrangements for one’s estate, it’s important to remain tactful and sensitive. Hartnett suggests raising the issue in a non-threatening and familiar environment, to help ease tension.
As the New York Times article notes, parents born in the 1920s, ’30s and early ’40s are part of the “silent generation,” a group characterized by a stoic attitude valuing personal privacy. People of this generation are likely to have strong, gut-level reservations about discussing their estate planning with their children. . Do your best to keep the talk non-confrontational.
One way to lighten the tension is to start the conversation with a different topic than your parents’ estate planning. For instance, you might mention some issues you’re facing with your own estate planning. Beginning by asking your parents for their advice in your own situation can help show them that you value their opinions and will reassure them that their views will not go ignored. You might also share what you are doing on your own, and perhaps that will inspire them to move forward with their own plans.
3: Bring in an outside expert.
Having a neutral third party present for the discussion can also help defuse tension. It could also be helpful to have someone on hand to answer any pressing questions, correct misconceptions, or offer other reassurances. You could invite another relative, a trusted family friend, or if you think it’s appropriate, a financial advisor or estate planning attorney.
4: Tackle the issues piece-by-piece.
Remember, an estate doesn’t have to be planned in only one meeting. You don’t have to solve every problem in one conversation. It’s likely that even once you get the conversation started, you will discover plenty of questions that can’t be answered right away. That’s OK. Before jumping into practical details, it’s important to make sure everyone is comfortable discussing the key issues. It’s not essential that every question or issue be fully resolved before you can start on the legal work. A qualified estate planning attorney will coach your parents gently through the process.
5: Do what works best for the family.
Yes, there are tax and financially-based decisions to address when discussing estate planning, but that’s not what should drive the conversation. The conversation should be reassuring, not overwhelming, and it should carry out family values and goals first and foremost.
In the last 20 years, I’ve helped thousands of clients through the estate planning process. I know how overwhelming the process can seem, especially for elderly clients. People have many reasons for leaving their estate plans un-addressed, from fear of confronting mortality to concerns about sparking a familial dispute, or even just plain old procrastination. Whatever the reason for waiting, getting a conversation started in your family about estate planning can make a world of a difference and can bring your family peace of mind.
Barry Zimmer is an estate planning attorney in Cincinnati, Ohio. He has been an active member of the American Academy of Estate Planning Attorneys since its creation in 1993. To learn more, you can call the Zimmer Law Firm at (513)721-1513, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
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