We have all heard that you should never discuss politics or religion in polite company. Those topics are divisive enough that people avoid them at all costs. This is, unfortunately, also true in most families concerning money or an estate plan. Discussing money is simply taboo and not discussed.
As people age, at least having a discussion about an estate plan and money is important. As the children of aging parents, you will likely be tasked with caring for an aging parent, so you may need to be the one to start the conversation.
You don’t want to rely on your parents to bring the topic up, or it may never happen.
I understand most families don’t discuss money, even if both the parents and children are adults. The discussion is simply not a comfortable topic, and sometimes there is some deception and secrecy about money. I myself have often told my kids we did not have money for a particular endeavor, which might not have been 100% true all the time, but was a good excuse for not needing to buy everything for them at the exact time they asked for it. However, the conversation you want to have with your parents is more about how to care for your parents, and what the money situation looks like, not a condemnation of whatever happened (or didn’t happen) in the past.
Asking about money and an estate plan can be more pragmatic than asking a question like “How much money do you have, mom and dad?” (Imagine an annoying teenager voice from a movie to really understand why this question might be obnoxious) Instead, you want to ease your way into the discussion.
You can start by asking a simple question like, “Mom and Dad, do you have an estate plan?” Or, “Do you have a will, or a trust?” That question can lead to a discussion of what is in the estate plan, and what your role might be in the estate plan. Simple, gentle questions to get the conversation started and find out what you need to know.
Starting the Conversation – Ask an Easy Question
You can start with this simple question, “Mom and Dad, do you have an estate plan?” That question is just a starting point. In my experience, many people will respond that they do not need an estate plan, as they have no estate. I can understand that response, but a simple follow up question can be, “Well, how about a will, trust, or something like that?” This may lead to a conversation about whether they have a will, trust, or other plan. If the answer is no, then you will want to have a discussion with your parents about why they need a plan.
You don’t want to get stuck handling things without any sort of guidance or direction on what to do from your parents, and they don’t want to have you trying to guess what it is they want. A far better approach is for you to talk about the plan so you can know what it is your parents want, and how to carry out their plan. If you can get your Mom and Dad to talk about whether they have the documents, then you have opened the door to a discussion.
Once You Start the Discussion, Keep it Going
You should continue the discussion by asking something like, “Well, what does the plan say?” This way, you can get your parents talking about the plan. This might lead to discussions of how old the plan is – if it is too old, it may be time to update the estate plan. If the plan accounts for current circumstances, then your parents are probably in a good spot.
You still want to know what the plan says, especially since you are one of the children who will likely be tasked with carrying out the plan. Almost all of the estate plans I have put together over my career have had a family member (usually a child) named as the personal representative – the person tasked with carrying out the instructions in a will. This is also true of someone tasked with acting as an agent under a power of attorney. Most people trust their kids to take care of them when they cannot, but the children need to know what they are supposed to do and who is in charge of carrying out the plan.
Be Sure to Ask What You Might Need to do Before Your Parents are Gone…and What You Need to Do After Your Parents are Gone
You may simply ask your parents if you are supposed to take over medical and financial decision making if they get sick, or otherwise need help. If you have siblings, you may not be the one who was put in charge. It may be someone else, or it may be you, but without asking, you cannot know.
By talking to your parents now, and having a slightly uncomfortable conversation while everyone is alive and able to discuss things, you can avoid much larger questions (or fights) in the future.
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