A few weeks ago I told my 30-year old daughter that my husband and I had just completed our estate plan. “I know,” she sighed in the exasperated tone of someone who’d rather steer the discussion to other things. “You mentioned you were going to the lawyer a few weeks ago.”
If you’re a baby boomer with aging parents whose estate plans remain shrouded in secrecy there’s a good chance you know that my up-front approach is the exception rather than the rule. According to a survey from BMO Wealth Institute, only 19 percent of adult children have had a detailed discussion with parents about their estate planning and goals, even though nearly 90 percent of them agree that estate planning is an important topic to discuss.
The “don’t ask don’t tell” approach is certainly the case with my husband’s 86-year-old mother, whose last, very brief discussion with him about her will took place over 25 years ago. My own mother, a long-time widow who died in 1996 at age 70, revealed nothing about her estate plans except to say where a decades-old will and keys to her safe deposit box could be found. When she died the time and expense of locating bank accounts and other information during an emotionally trying time was something that almost certainly could have been avoided had more open discussion prevailed before she died.
Reasons that parents avoid discussing estate plans with their children run the gamut. Maybe they haven’t drawn up a detailed will, and expect survivors to straighten things out amicably. Perhaps the subject is too ghoulish to bring up because it reminds them of their advanced age or mortality. They could be looking to avoid uncomfortable discussions with family members about why one sibling is getting the antique gold-plated soup tureen while the other must settle for a dusty WWII era rifle.
For many people, the challenge is getting parents to open up about their estate plans when they appear to have no interest in doing so. Many adult children worry about appearing self-serving or greedy by even bringing up the subject. And if uncomfortable topics have been avoided for years, it’s unrealistic to expect long-erected barriers to suddenly crumble in deference to your earnest intentions.
But frank discussions about estate planning are critical if a family wants to…
Avoid squabbles at a time of stress by letting heirs know exactly what someone’s wishes are and who should carry them out.
Appoint someone who will take charge of a parent’s financial affairs should he or she become incapacitated.
Locate and gain access to bank accounts, brokerage accounts, retirement plans, insurance policies, and other financial assets in case of emergency.
Keep the decision-making process about an estate from getting bogged down in probate court.
Eliminate the element of financial surprise or unintended distribution of assets.
Provide instructions regarding life-sustaining measures in a healthcare emergency.
A detailed discussion need not involve discussing specific amounts or the exact size of the estate. But it should go beyond telling children where will and trust documents are located to things like health care directives, division of assets, and who will be acting as executor or trustee. If siblings and other beneficiaries are involved it’s probably a good idea to ask them to participate, or at least give them a heads-up so they won’t think you’re trying to gain the upper hand behind their backs.
A good discussion opener is to talk with parents about details of your own will and estate plan. After all, one of the best ways to get someone to open up about personal matters is for you to do it first. If you haven’t made an estate plan, parents will rightfully think it presumptuous if you question them about theirs. Suggesting they talk with a financial advisor or attorney–perhaps one you’ve used yourself–is another option. At the very least, you might e-mail an article on estate planning with a note to the effect that you thought it was interesting reading you found useful. While the last gambit may sound a tad obvious, it may be worth a try when past experience suggests anything more direct is likely to meet with deaf ears.
Whatever you do, don’t bring up the subject in an accusatory fashion (“It’s my right to know!), or during emotionally charged events such as Christmas or a birthday. Instead, broach it at a quiet, calm time in a setting that’s conductive to private discussion, such as a routine family outing or dinner. And remember that when it comes time to talk to adult children about your own estate plan being up-front about things will almost certainly avoid headaches for them down the road.
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