Growing up, our parents seemed invincible. We mimicked their mannerisms, fell in love with the same baseball team and wanted to grow up to be just like them. They loved us, fed us and did whatever they needed to do to take care of us. They opened our first bank account, gave us an allowance and taught us the value of a dollar.
As our parents begin aging, the roles often reverse. We may wind up driving them to doctor’s appointments and seeing them begin to struggle with daily activities.
Time is a finite resource, and that can be hard to digest when it comes to people we love as much as our parents. These feelings can make talking about estate planning with our parents difficult — doing so means that we’re acknowledging that they won’t be around forever. Perhaps that’s why more than half of Americans don’t have an up-to-date legacy plan, according to the National Association of Estate Planners & Councils. But it’s important to have this end-of-life conversation to have for several reasons. Here’s why and how to talk about estate planning with your parents.
What is Estate Planning?
Estate planning is a broad term. It can include healthcare preferences, such as a do-not-resuscitate order. Estate plans may also designate a person who can make financial and medical decisions if an individual is deemed incapacitated and specify inheritance.
Why It’s Important to Talk About Estate Planning
When a loved one dies or becomes incapacitated, those left behind typically experience grief and stress. It’s a difficult time, and having wishes spelled out in advance can help lessen the burden on family and friends. They won’t have to scramble to make hard medical decisions or fight over who inherits a property.
Legacy planning also allows people to have a lasting impact on the lives of their loved ones. Bequeathing financial assets or property to others can help them live more comfortable lives. A grandchild may use a trust to pay for education, and adult children can sell a property and use the money to fund a new business venture. The person who passed on and left them these assets has therefore meaningfully contributed to their loved ones’ futures, even if they are not around to see it.
In other words, having a difficult end-of-life conversation about estate planning now can save everyone a ton of heartache and anxiety later. What’s more, it allows the aging person to have a positive role in their family’s future long after they are gone. Don’t put it off — even if your parents are healthy and not experiencing cognitive decline. Anything can happen, and it’s actually best to have it before they start experiencing health issues. Not only might these conditions impair their ability to be of sound mind, talking about estate planning while they are going through a medical problem may only add to their stresses.
Know the Legacy-Planning Lingo
Before talking about estate planning with your parents, it’s a good idea to do some research on key terms and items you’ll encounter when speaking about end-of-life care and desires.
- Healthcare proxy: Sometimes called a healthcare surrogate, this person makes medical decisions on someone’s behalf. Typically, this requires legal documentation with a form. You’ll want to check the guidelines of the state your parents live in for how to designate a healthcare proxy.
- Last will and testament: This legal document names the people who will receive certain assets, such as money and property. It specifies exactly what each person gets. An executor typically oversees the allocation of assets.
- Living will: A living will is not the same as a last will and testament. Instead, it specifies a person’s desires for healthcare decisions, including whether or not a person wishes to be placed on life support or donate their organs.
- Power of Attorney: A power of attorney can act on someone’s behalf in financial and legal matters. A form is typically required. Check the laws in your parents’ state.
- Trust: Trusts can transfer property without going through probate. Unlike probates, trusts are private.
Speak With Other Family Members
The whole family should be involved in these conversations. You want transparency as that will only help mitigate conflicts over inheritance and healthcare decisions when a parent is sick or passes. If you have siblings, tell them you’d like to speak with your parents about estate planning and arrange to do it as a group.
Sometimes, families live far away. If one person lives in another state or country and can’t be present in-person, have them join the discussion over Zoom or via telephone. Before speaking with your parents, you may want to have an honest conversation with siblings about who might be the best person to volunteer to be a healthcare proxy or power of attorney (For example, the person who is best with money or lives closer may be the best option.).
How to Have the Conversation
End-of-life conversations with aging parents aren’t easy to have, and it can feel awkward bringing it up. Try these tips.
- Find a reason to bring it up. Perhaps you heard something on the news about a celebrity’s family fighting over an inheritance. Or, maybe you read an article on legacy planning. You can bring up the news story or show your parents what you read to get the conversation going naturally. Try, “Hey, did you hear about so and so’s estate issues? It sounds awful. What are your plans?”
- Bring up your plans. If you recently updated your will or met with an estate planner, you might share this information with your parents. You can tell them you felt relieved knowing you had a plan in place to ensure your loved ones would be taken care of, and ask them if they have established an estate plan.
- Ask if they have a financial planner. A financial planner can help them establish a portfolio or trust for family members.
- Remind parents they are not alone. Aging parents may still be in caregiver-mode, and it can be hard to shift gears and acknowledge a time may come when their adult children need to care for them (and carry on their legacy). Be empathetic, and remind them that this is natural and that you are here to help.
- Ask about key documents and items. You’ll want to ask your parents if they have already established a power of attorney, healthcare proxy, living will, last will and testament and trust.
- Understand it’s a continuing conversation. Plans can change. For example, if your parents welcome another grandchild, they may want to add them to their last will and testament. Or, an adult child may die before a parent. In that case, it’s best if the will and other plans are updated as needed.