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How To Talk To Your Parents About Estate Planning

Thanksgiving is a busy and joyful time. As your family comes together to celebrate, you may also want to make time to talk to your parents about estate planning. Guest contributor Jeramie J. Fortenberry provides tips on how to start the conversation.

It can be difficult to talk to parents about estate planning. For a number of reasons, parents can be reluctant to plan their final affairs.  Children are often concerned that broaching the topic will make them seem insensitive or greedy. But the truth is that your parents’ estate plan (or lack thereof) can affect you as much as it does them. Talking about estate planning can ease everyone’s minds and help ensure a smooth transition when the time comes.

The upcoming Thanksgiving holiday presents a great opportunity to talk to your parents about estate planning. Here are a few tips to help facilitate the discussion.

 Start by Talking About Your Own Estate Planning Concerns

To break the ice, it may help to talk about your own estate planning concerns. Keep the initial discussion about general estate planning topics, and only move to their specific estate plans when the opportunity arises.

There are a number of ways to begin a conversation about estate planning. Here are a few examples:

  • Explain that you have talked to someone or read articles recently that prompted you to think about the importance of estate planning.
  • Discuss how the turmoil in the economic markets has put some inheritances in jeopardy.
  • Talk about how the recent Presidential election and the current political climate could affect gift and estate taxes.
  • Mention your goals of avoiding family conflict in your own estate.

Conversations like these provide a low-pressure context in which to discuss estate planning. With a little luck, your parents will open up about their own plans. If not, the conversation will at least give you the opportunity to ask them whether they have thought about these issues for their own estate. At a minimum, the discussion should prompt them to start thinking about the topic.

Make It About Family, Not About Money

Many parents care more about the administrative burdens they leave for their children and family harmony than the specific dollar amount that each heir will receive. Open conversations about estate planning can set family expectations and minimize the risk of conflict after death. And because discussions about family don’t carry the same cultural taboo as discussions about money, it is a good idea to keep the focus on maintaining healthy family relationships.

There are a number of ways that family harmony can be disrupted by an estate plan (or failure to plan). For example, choosing the wrong family member to serve as executor or trustee can be a recipe for disaster. If there is conflict between family members, naming one of them in a fiduciary role can bring them further apart, particularly if the fiduciary role involves a lot of discretion. A corporate trustee or more neutral family member may be a better choice.

Although most parents don’t want to burden their children after their death, the work required to deal with the parents’ final affairs can vary depending on the type of estate plans that your parents have. Will probate be required? Will decisions regarding taxes or special tax filings need to be made? Will there be an ongoing trust that requires continued oversight over a number of years? If one person is saddled with all of the work, that person may come to resent the role or to feel that he or she is entitled to more of the estate.

Planning to avoid family conflict is particularly important in a second-marriage situation. Probate attorneys all have stories about the family train wreck that can occur after the death of a parent who leaves a surviving spouse that is not the parent of his or her children. Special care should be taken in this context to preserve family harmony.

Bringing family concerns to your parents’ attention can help them see the bigger picture. A few simple steps taken while your parents are alive can minimize family tension after their death.

Identify the Cause of Procrastination

Sometimes parents just don’t want to think about estate planning. If your parents are putting it off, you can help them by addressing the concerns behind their reluctance to plan.

There are a number of reasons that people delay estate planning, including:

  • Lack of knowledge regarding the need for estate planning or familiarity with estate planning concepts
  • Reluctance to consider their own mortality
  • A belief that they don’t own enough assets to need estate planning
  • Concerns about the cost of estate planning
  • A belief that they are too young to need an estate plan
  • Concern that the estate planning process might be too complicated

There are easy responses to most of these concerns. If you can identify what is causing your parents to procrastinate, you may be able to encourage them to move forward with their estate planning.

About the Author

Jeramie J. Fortenberry is the founder of Fortenberry Legal. He helps his clients with estate planning and small business law. He also handles Florida probate matters on a flat fee basis in all counties.  To connect with Jeramie, visit the Probate Lawyer blog.

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One Comment

  1. Evan Guthrie Law Firm says:

    The holidays are a great time to talk about estate planning as a family with everybody is together. Hopefully everybody is on the same page and can get along and strategize the best way to keep the family together and plan for the future.