Open communication between parents and children about financial, estate and long-term care planning matters benefits the family on a number of levels. From a practical perspective, a parent’s wishes are more likely to be carried out correctly and expeditiously upon disability or death if he or she has shared knowledge about the location of estate planning and financial documentation with the child named as fiduciary.
Some parents discuss their financial and estate-planning affairs readily with adult children while others clam up about the subject. So long as the parent retains capacity, the right to privacy and independence in personal and financial lives remains intact.
However, as parents age, children left in the dark are often concerned about whether their parents have made any plans at all – yet, may be reluctant to raise the issue. The following suggestions are designed to assist in starting “the conversation”:
- Broach the topic while health and personal issues are stable. Decisions made after the onset of illness, crises or even in the midst of transitional stages may be emotionally based and thus not well analyzed. Also, procrastination can effectively limit available options. A decline in health or death of a friend or family member often opens the door to a planning discussion.
- No adult wants to feel a loss of financial control and some parents may need reassurance that they remain in the “driver’s seat” even after completion of the planning process. Emphasizing that a confidential relationship exists between them and their chosen advisors and planners demonstrates a child’s respect for privacy and independence. (Naturally, the approach differs where a parent is unable to manage his or her own affairs.)
- Before an adult child approaches aging parents about estate and elder law issues, his or her own planning should be completed or at least underway. Striking up a conversation about the child’s progress in establishing a plan is a natural segue into a chat about the parents‘ status in that regard. In addition, seminars offered by attorneys focusing on estate planning and elder law will normally prove informative and attendance can be turned into a family outing.
Example: Marilyn is concerned that her parents (in their late 70s) may not have prepared an estate plan. Instead of bringing the topic up directly, she informs her mom and dad about a seminar being offered by a local estate planning/elder law attorney. She invites them to accompany Marilyn and her husband to the session, as they haven’t yet done their own planning. Subsequent discussions about the parent’s affairs may become more comfortable since the subject has now been raised and accurate information has been collected. Such seminars have spurred many into beginning or updating their estate plan.
- Holding a family meeting to discuss these issues can be effective – depending on family dynamics. All too often, the family begins collaborating only after a parent’s health has suffered a serious decline and the conversation centers around allocation of responsibility for the parents’ needs. An agenda (ideally structured with input from all family members) should be distributed ahead of time so that everyone is prepared, and nobody is surprised. It is generally wise to limit attendance at the initial meeting to immediate family members. Including in laws may not be productive unless they are truly “like family” and everyone agrees that they belong.
- Last (and by no means least), even seasoned estate planning practitioners should not draft documents for relatives. If any family member feels slighted or is dissatisfied with the services, underlying or even overt resentments may develop. Besides, the lawyer (who was just trying to help out) has usually not been compensated, illustrating Clare Booth Luce’s famous quote: “No good deed goes unpunished.”
-Cynthia Sharp, Esq