“Pass the potatoes … and while you’re at it, where’s your will?”
Cringe-worthy conversation, right? But even though bringing up the topic of death with elderly relatives is something most of us would deeply like to avoid, it’s an important conversation to have.
Knowing if your family members have life insurance, a will, plans or funds for long-term care, as well as topics surrounding a living will (i.e. do they want a ‘do not resuscitate’ order if the worst were to happen?) are great ones to regularly bring up, so everyone is on the same page well before anything happens.
That said, because these topics aren’t easy to discuss, they’re often left unaddressed, leaving relatives confused, scrambling, and potentially arguing after your loved one is gone. Here are some of the best ways to seize the moment and talk with your parents about their estate.
This conversation should happen privately, when everyone can focus, not, for example, at a celebratory Mother’s Day lunch.
One good way to segway into the conversation is to mention your own plans. Saying something like, “I’ve been thinking a lot about the future, and I wanted you to know I’ve bought life insurance so I’m covered” is a good way to then ask them what their coverage may be.
Another way to bring up the topic is to mention reading an article (like this one) on the topic or mention a friend who had difficulty assessing their family member’s needs because the topic had never come up.
A book can also help clear the air. For example, in the new book The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, author Margareta Magnusson discusses the Swedish custom of decluttering your home as if you were going to die. Touching on pop culture can add some levity to the conversation while also making it clear it’s something that’s important to discuss.
This shouldn’t feel like an inquisition, so let them lead the conversation and tell you what they may have done or may not have covered yet.
Say that you hate these questions, but it’s something you worry about, and you want to make sure you know their wishes. It’s also important not to ask why they haven’t done anything, if that’s the case.
Just let them explain what they have done, and offer help where needed.
It pays to do your own homework and have your own financial ducks in a row before you have this conversation with your parents.
Not only are you then knowledgeable in terminology and language, but you can also offer your perspective (if it’s asked for) as well as any tools or advisors who’ve helped you along the way in your own journey in managing your affairs.
Make it clear up front: You’re not worried or concerned about specific dollar amounts, you’re wondering more about the overall picture of how they’ve planned for end of life.
Ask if they have a specific place where they keep important documents, passwords, and if there is anything else the family should know.
For example, who is named executor of their will? Is a living will in place? What would happen if a parent experiences cognitive decline? It’s also a good time to talk about potential long term care—if your parents were no longer able to take care of themselves in their house, what would their plan be and how would it be paid for?
The National Institute on Aging recommends these five documents—making sure to discuss all of them can ensure all bases are covered.
Living will. What medical treatment do you want at end of life?
Power of attorney for healthcare. Also called a healthcare proxy or agent, this person has the power to make healthcare decisions if the person who is ill cannot do so.
Will. How will assets be divided after death?
Power of attorney for finances. If a person can no longer handle their finances, who can make these decisions while the person is still alive?
Living trust. If a person can no longer manage their estate, who can do so, holding property and funds for beneficiaries?
The power of attorney for healthcare, finances, and living trust may be all the same person, if, for example, a couple is married. But it doesn’t have to be, and it’s especially important to revisit these documents if a death or divorce occurs and draw up new forms, naming a different proxy.
How do you get power of attorney? It’s important that the person who will be power of attorney be named in a legally binding document, instead of understood through casual conversation.
A lawyer can help you draw up these documents, and an appointment with a lawyer can be helpful to walk you through all the forms and what-ifs you may need. That said, a lawyer isn’t essential.
Many states offer standardized forms allowing you to name a power of attorney, specify wishes in a living will or advance directive, or choose a healthcare proxy. These forms often need to be notarized to be made official.
To find these forms, search the Department of Health’s website for your state, download the appropriate forms, and get them signed and notarized. It’s also important to make a few copies, and make sure to let trusted family members know where the forms can be accessed, or send them the digital files, along with information of where they can find the originals.
The conversation shouldn’t be a one-and-done conversation, it should evolve over time.
Making a point to check in as a family (including far-flung siblings) every six months or every year can ensure everyone’s on the same page, any updates on the status of notarized legal forms can be discussed, and anyone can feel free to voice uncomfortable questions.
It’s never too early—or too late—to start planning, and making it a family project and mission to get organized and covered in the upcoming year can help make it seem less like a fatalistic chore and more of a project to help make your family closer.
Anna Davies is a writer specializing in personal finance who's written for Refinery29, Cosmo, Elle, Glamour, the New York Post, Conde Nast Traveler and others. When she's not working, she loves going on adventures and traveling with her 2-year-old daughter.
This material is designed to provide general information on the subjects covered. It is not, however, intended to provide any specific legal advice or to serve as the basis for any decisions.
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