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How To Talk to Your Parents About Their Estate Plan (Without Making It Awkward)

Shot of a senior couple getting advice from their financial consultant at home

Feb 25, 2021

Submitted by Erin Hoffman
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Do you expect your parents to leave you a financial legacy? Nearly half of working-age Americans assume that they will receive an inheritance that will support them later in life, according to a survey by the financial services company HSBC.

Perhaps the bigger question, though, is how to even approach this topic with your parents. “No matter how you look at this, it’s such a sensitive issue,” said Gwen Morgan, author of the “What If … Workbook,” a guide that helps people give loved ones necessary information if anything happens to them.

You don’t want to appear greedy when asking your parents about their estate planning. But, you do need answers to certain questions to ensure that your parents’ financial wishes are carried out and there is a smooth transition of wealth and assets. Here’s how to approach this touchy subject and get the information you need.

How To Start the Conversation
The burning question on your mind might be how much money you’ll get in your inheritance from your parents. However, you shouldn’t ask how much you stand to inherit because the amount can change over your parents’ remaining lives, said Chris Blackmon, a certified public accountant (CPA) with wealth management firm Biggers Blackmon LLC. Plus, you don’t want your parents to mistake your question as a sense of entitlement, he said. Instead, you should start by asking your parents whether they have an estate plan.

You can say, “I don’t want to know the numbers. I just want to be able to follow your instructions out of love,” said Saul Simon, a certified financial planner (CFP) and author of “Simon Says: Love Your Legacy.” It’s important that your parents know that you want to know what they want if something happens to them, he said.

Have Resources Handy
A good way to start this conversation is to reference a resource, such as a book or an article you read about the importance of estate planning. You could share what you’ve learned or offer to let them read the resource themselves.

Some possible resources to use:
“Wills and Trusts Kit For Dummies” by Aaron Larson
“Get It Together: Organize Your Records So Your Family Won’t Have To” by Mellanie Cullen
“Family Wealth–Keeping It in the Family: How Family Members and Their Advisers Preserve Human, Intellectual, and Financial Assets for Generations” by James E. Hughes Jr.
“The Wall Street Journal Complete Estate-Planning Guidebook” by Rachel Emma Silverman
“You Only Die Once: A Guide to Estate Planning for You and Your Loved Ones” by Jeffrey Althaus
“Get Your Ducks in a Row: The Baby Boomers Guide to Estate Planning” by Harry S. Margolis

Do Your Own Estate Planning
Alternatively, or in addition to referencing sources, you could say that you’re doing your own estate planning so that there is no question about who gets what when you’re gone, then ask whether your parents have taken any similar steps. “You might even acknowledge how awkward and difficult this conversation is for you as you do not wish their demise but are just trying to figure things out,” said Ruth Nemzoff, an expert in family dynamics and author of the book “Don’t Bite Your Tongue.”

When To Have the Talk
Though it might seem counterintuitive, both Blackmon and Simon said that the holidays are a good time to address estate planning with your parents if your family will be gathering together. “It is important that all are included and feel equally included,” said Blackmon.

This doesn’t mean you should bring up your potential inheritance from your parents at the dinner table right after you ask Mom or Dad to pass the turkey. But, you should take the opportunity when everyone is gathered to start a conversation.

Don't Put It on the Calendar
With that said, you’ll likely get a better reception from your parents if you let the conversation happen naturally rather than scheduling a time to talk, said Morgan. That’s when using a story about your own financial planning or an example of someone’s failure to plan can be effective.

Discussing Key Documents
Regardless of the way or when you approach the topic of an inheritance from your parents, the goal of the conversation is to make sure parents have a plan in place so there will be a clear path for whoever is left behind to go forward, Morgan said. Start by finding out whether they have these key legal documents:

  • A will
  • A power of attorney document that designates someone to financial and legal decisions if they are unable to do so themselves
  • A living will or health care directive to designate someone to make health care decisions and specify end-of-life care

Finding Out Where They Are Kept
Find out where your parents keep these documents and how you can access them if necessary. Are they in your dad’s desk drawer in the den or maybe in a lockbox in the attic? They could be kept secured at the bank or with a trusted financial advisor, so be sure you can access them, whether it’s by pin number, key or other means.

Get Any Specifics on Funerary Arrangements
It may seem morbid, but you’ll also want to ask if your parents have written funeral or burial instructions. Make it clear that you want to honor their wishes, whether that is scattering their ashes in a special place or burying them in their cemetery of choice. Would they like a funeral, wake or perhaps nothing at all? If they want a gathering, would they like their guests to enjoy their favorite flowers, music, etc.? How about having a preferred minister or priest speak?

Gaining Access To Accounts
You also need to ask your parents to provide other important information so you can handle their finances if they are unable to or when they die.

Items to discuss:

  • Account numbers and passwords
  • Insurance policies and contact information for their insurers
  • Contact information for their accountant, attorney, financial planner or other financial professional
  • Contact information for their retirement plan or pension administrator

What To Do When Your Parents Aren't Comfortable With Handing Over That Information
Morgan said most parents will not be willing to provide their children with their account numbers and passwords. So, she recommends that you ask your parents to make a list of accounts or use “The What If … Workbook” to record important financial information and store it in a fireproof safe in their home along with their Social Security card, passport, deeds and other important documents.

Proving Yourself To Be Trustworthy and Reliable
Just as it is important to know when to have these conversations, it is important to know when not to. The key to having any conversation about money is establishing trust. You don’t want to talk to your parents about their estate if you’ve recently argued with them or haven’t demonstrated to them that you can be financially responsible, said Nemzoff. You have to prove to them that you can handle your own finances and that they can trust you with theirs. Note, this may take time.

Finally, Read the Room
While it makes sense in a lot of ways, Morgan advises against asking your parents about their finances at times of turmoil, such as the recent drop in the stock market. Your parents might think you’re touching on the topic only because you’re concerned about whether there will be money left for you. If possible, wait until things are “normal” to have big conversations about their estate. Chances are, they’ll appreciate that you are approaching them when they’re not in a tight spot.


Author: Cameron Huddleston; Erica Corbin contributed to the reporting of this article.

This article originally appeared on How To Talk to Your Parents About Their Estate Plan (Without Making It Awkward)

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