Bringing up the topic of estate planning with your aging parents can be challenging, which is why many adults put it off. Parents, no matter how old they are, are typically used to being the ones who give guidance to their children, not the ones who receive it. They may become defensive when asked about personal issues like estate planning. Adult children, on the other hand, may feel awkward about “intruding” in their parents’ affairs, even if their involvement is warranted. But when it comes to estate planning for elderly parents, it is important to get over discomfort and tackle this important issue.
It’s helpful to unpack some of the reasons why discussing estate planning for aging parents is hard for families. It’s more than just the issue of family role reversal. Estate planning requires talking about mortality and incapacity. Elderly parents may have already experienced some decline and fear what the future holds. Talking in concrete terms about a future in which they are unable to care for themselves, or no longer living, stirs up those fears.
Adult children also may not want to imagine a future in which their parents are not a vigorous, healthy presence. Or they may worry that their parents will think they are focused on receiving their inheritance, not on the parents’ well-being. Even if parents or children want to bring up the topic of estate planning, they may hesitate for fear of upsetting their loved ones.
For all these reasons, it’s easy to avoid talking about illness, loss, and financial matters, but eventually they will have to be confronted. As hard as the discussion might be now, it will be even more difficult when a parent needs emergency help or is grieving the loss of a spouse.
Why It’s Important to Talk About Estate Planning With Your Parents
Many people think estate planning is only about how their property will be distributed after their death. It is important to plan for that, but estate planning is also about what happens during life. A substantial number of people become legally incapable of managing their own affairs, through dementia or other illness or injury. Estate planning allows people, while they are still competent, to decide who will make important decisions for them if they cannot make those decisions for themselves. Durable financial powers of attorney and advance healthcare directives are essential parts of every estate plan.
Without these documents in place, families are often left scrambling when a parent needs help with their care. Lacking clear guidance, adult children are left wondering (and sometimes arguing about) what is best for their parent. They may need to establish guardianship over their parent, which involves a potentially contentious court process. The stress of this situation can make any existing tensions in a family even worse, leading to permanent rifts among family members.
Similarly, if a parent dies without an estate plan in place, their assets are distributed according to state law, not necessarily according to their wishes. While the law is intended to approximate what most people would do if they had made an estate plan, it might lead to unintended consequences. For instance, an older person might remarry late in life, and die shortly thereafter. Under Michigan state intestacy law, the second spouse could end up with a large portion of the estate that the deceased meant his children to have.
Conversations About Estate Planning for Elderly Parents
As with any potentially difficult conversation, it’s often helpful to approach this sensitive topic indirectly. If you’re old enough to have a conversation about estate planning with your elderly parents, you’re probably old enough to have an estate plan yourself. You could always open a conversation by talking about how you recently made your estate plan or talked to an estate planning attorney, and what you learned. Then you can steer the conversation around to whether your parents have an estate plan, and when they last updated it.
When you are discussing estate planning with your aging parents, it’s also helpful to keep the conversation focused on the advantages to them. For instance, you want to make sure their wishes are known and honored. You want to make sure family members have clarity about those wishes, so that there are no unnecessary conflicts. (Your parents may not care about who gets mom’s ceramic chickens, but they probably care deeply about their children getting along after they’re gone.) In short, you want to make sure your parents are well-cared for while they’re alive, and that their wishes are respected both during their lives and afterward. And they are probably motivated to preserve harmony among their loved ones.
If you are caring for aging parents, be aware that talking about estate planning may not be one big conversation, but several small ones. You might introduce the topic, give your parents some time to think about it, and raise it again at a later date. If your parents are still uncomfortable talking about their estate plan with you, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they aren’t thinking about it. You can take a more hands-off approach, giving them the contact information of a trusted estate planning attorney and letting them take the next step.
If you need help having a talk about estate planning with your elderly parents, we invite you to contact Estate Planning & Elder Law Services for guidance and support.