Discussing estate planning with your parents as they age is an uncomfortable prospect. You don't want to be seen as prying, or worse, as if you're greedy and want to get your hands on your inheritance. But avoiding the subject in order to avoid discomfort—for your parents or yourself—leaves a lot at risk.
Sometimes, the most uncomfortable conversations we have with our parents can be the most important (learning about the birds and the bees springs to mind). For most of your life, your parents were the ones asking the difficult questions and providing wisdom and guidance. As they age, though, there tends to be some role reversal. You may be the ones asking personal questions about issues like health and finances, even though you've been conditioned for years to mind your own business. You know it's a conversation you need to have, so here is some time-tested advice about discussing estate planning with your parents.
In the broader context of "when," you should discuss estate planning with your aging parents as soon as possible. You already know the reason: life and death are unpredictable. There's not always a lot of advance notice that an estate plan will be needed, and having one in place makes sure your parents' wishes are honored. In an addition, having an estate plan will give peace of mind to their loved ones—including you. In our office, we have worked with many families who had to make decisions for loved ones that would have been so much easier had they had an estate plan for guidance. The uncertainty, guilt, and second-guessing can be heartbreaking to see, and worse to live through. If your parents have a comprehensive estate plan, they can spare you that.
By "estate plan," of course, we mean more than just documents that will dispose of your parents' estate after they die. A thorough estate plan includes medical and financial powers of attorney, to take effect in the event that they are unable to express their own wishes or attend to their own affairs. These documents provide for someone, most likely a spouse or adult child, to seamlessly step in and manage their affairs and health care decisions when they cannot. In addition, they can provide specific guidance about their wishes.
It may be worth mentioning that if your parents are worried about needing long-term care at some point in their lives, speaking to an elder law attorney can help them protect assets so that all their hard-earned money won't need to go to a nursing home.
As for the more specific "when" to talk about these sensitive issues, any time you have privacy and some time to devote to the discussion is fine.
A good way to open the discussion is by talking about your own planning: "You know, Chris and I just had our estate plan drawn up (or updated) recently, and our attorney advised us to make sure our loved ones were aware of our plans. It got me to thinking: I don't even know whether you have a written estate plan, or powers of attorney, or anything. Is there anything you need me to know about your estate plan in case of emergency?" If your parents admit that they don't have an estate plan, you can offer to help connect them with your attorney, letting them know how much peace of mind you have gotten out of having an estate plan in place.
Of course, the above script assumes that you DO have an estate plan in place—but maybe you don't. If not, why not? Even people who are young, or single and childless, or don't have much money still need an estate plan. Sudden illnesses or accidents can, unfortunately, happen to anyone.
If it happens that you don't have your own estate plan yet, here's an alternative script. "Mom and Dad, I've been reading about the importance of having an estate plan for all adults, so I'd like to have one prepared. Can I get the name of the attorney who prepared yours?" You can then move into discussions of where their documents are, when they were prepared, and whether they need updating (recommended if assets have changed or existing beneficiaries have passed away or new likely beneficiaries have been born since the plan was prepared).
If it emerges that neither you nor your parents have an estate plan in place, you can commit to both making appointments to see an estate planning attorney. We invite you to contact our law office to see how simple it is to get the process started, or to let us answer any questions that you or your parents may have.
If your parents are uncomfortable discussing their finances with you or want to keep matters private, don't press. Just keep a focus on the primary benefit of an estate plan: peace of mind for them and for their loved ones, and encourage them to see an attorney when they are ready.