How to have the dreaded estate talk

Some of you would sooner eat a truckload of lima beans (ugh) than talk to your adult children about money and estate plans. It’s a touchy subject.

However, silence around such matters can lead to troublesome consequences — like confusion, family battles, strained relationships, mistrust and heirs who are unprepared to handle family assets or end-of-life decisions.

If you love your children and genuinely want what is best for them, don’t leave them in the dark about your estate plan.

Talk to them.


5 tips to talking over your estate plan with your family

Here are a few tips that can help you with these sticky conversations.

Tip 1. One talk or two? Public or private? Find out what’s best for you

First, determine how many and what kind of talks you need. Circumstances, family dynamics and personalities all play a part in figuring out if one family conversation will do or if more is better. Or, even if a private conversation is needed.

When one is enough

For some, one meeting may be enough. This is true for families where things are pretty straightforward, everybody understands the plan and is on the same page.

When more is better

But for others, a series of talks works best. Some children need time to digest your wishes before coming together again for more dialogue. These are delicate issues, after all, fraught with emotion. Ongoing discussions can encourage communication, clear up misunderstandings and ease tensions. It can be tough to swallow the whole enchilada at one sitting.

Talking one-on-one

Another option is to talk to your kids separately, either before or even in place of addressing everyone as a group. Children may feel they can be more honest in their responses if their siblings aren’t staring them down from across the room. And their feedback can be valuable. You never know what you’ll learn. A child getting a bigger share of your estate (for whatever reason), may reveal they would rather receive an equal portion than risk the ire of ticked off siblings.

Then too, individual conversations provide a wonderful opportunity to freely express your reasoning behind your estate plan, which is especially helpful if your estate is not being divided evenly. Just hearing from you why you decided to distribute your estate as you did, can forestall family drama, build understanding and smooth ruffled feathers.

Of course, you’re not obligated to change your plans after talking with your children, but having honest feedback can make a difference in how you approach things.

Tip 2. Put the right people in the right job

Estate planning involves assigning some pretty weighty responsibilities to people. These can include –

  • medical power of attorney (someone who can make health care choices for you on your behalf)
  • financial power of attorney (someone who can manage your legal or financial affairs on your behalf)
  • guardian to care for your minor children
  • executor of your estate (someone who makes sure that after your death all your debts and taxes are paid and that what’s left is given to those you’ve indicated in your will.)

You’ll definitely want to make sure that the people you’ve chosen for these roles are suited for them. Not everyone is. Some are neither willing nor able to take on the commitment necessary for such serious responsibilities. If you need help thinking through the qualities required for each role and who might be a good fit, consider consulting an estate planning professional. And if you are concerned that hard feelings may arise from your choices, you can opt to share why you selected a particular person for a role.

Tip 3. Get your paperwork ready

Once you’ve got your key estate planning players settled and had any preliminary private talks, it’s time to get your paperwork ready. Have the proper documents prepared (some may need to be notarized) and copies handy. This way your wishes are official and in plain print, lessening the likelihood of misinterpretation.

These documents may include –

  • advanced medical directives (living will, durable power of attorney for health care and a do-not-resuscitate order)
  • financial power of attorney
  • will
  • revocable trust
  • personal letter of instruction

A letter of instruction isn’t a legal document. And it isn’t required. But it is a nice touch. As a personal letter from you expressing your thoughts and wishes for your estate, this letter fills in the picture in a way that a formal will cannot.

Tip 4. Keep your talk cordial

If you think your meeting will most likely be a friendly discussion among family, then just invite your family. But, if you fear some unfriendly fire could break out, then by all means enlist the help of an estate planning professional to facilitate. They can easily dispel misinformation, quash mistaken feelings of entitlement and generally keep things clear and cordial. You can even meet on the neutral ground of the professional’s office if you think that would help.

Either way, try to keep things friendly by setting a few basic ground rules, where everyone is encouraged to speak but in a kind and respectful manner and without interruption. And it doesn’t hurt to remind people that the goal of good communication is to promote understanding — not necessarily agreement.

Tip 5. Affirm your love of family

Finally, talks like these can trigger a flood of emotions, ranging from sadness, anxiety, hurt and anger to happiness, relief and acceptance. It’s important to affirm the loving intent of your talk right at the get-go. Assure your family that you are having this discussion because you deeply care about them and their future and you don’t want them to be in the dark about your wishes.

There’s no denying that talking over your estate plan with your children is tough. But, the consequences stemming from silence are not the legacy you want to leave. With a little foresight and planning you can not only forestall family mayhem, you can actually build family togetherness.

Now that’s a sweet inheritance.

Advisory services are offered by Joslin Capital Advisors, LLC, an SEC Registered Investment Advisor.

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