Uncomfortable Conversations About Estate Planning (Part 1 of 2)

By Robert J. Green, Esq.

My clients frequently express to me how difficult it can be to speak to their family members about the decisions they have made (or are in the process of making) when we are working on their estate planning documents.  Sometimes the issue is that a parent’s adult children refuse to discuss these matters because the children are not willing to acknowledge that their parent will die at some point.  Other times the issue is a child that cannot get their parents to acknowledge the need to get their affairs in order.  The unique dynamics that every family has can often compound the general problem of one person or the other not wanting to discuss these matters.  Let’s start this week by looking at the first of the two situations I’ve mentioned above and consider some possible approaches to a potentially very delicate topic.  Next Sunday, we will tackle Part 2 of this topic with some ideas for adult children on how to motivate their parents to get their planning in order. 

As a reminder, an “estate plan” is simply the collection of documents that almost every adult in Idaho should have in place to effectively deal with what to do if that person is incapacitated (becomes unable to make their own decisions for any reason) or is deceased.  These documents typically include a Last Will & Testament, a Power of Attorney for Health Care Decisions, a Power of Attorney for Financial Decisions, Advanced Directive Documents like Living Wills and Physician’s Orders for Scope of Treatment, a HIPAA Medical Privacy Waiver, and possibly a Revocable Living Trust. 

When a child is unwilling to discuss estate planning with a parent, I have found it is often due to a belief that those matters are none of the child’s business, or that the child wants his or her parents to be focused on living – not on dying.  For those children that simply feel it is improper for them to discuss these things with the parent, I suggest the parent express to the child how important it is that the child be aware of certain things in order that the parent may have confidence that his or her wishes be honored.  In this scenario, a parent might also want to “blame it on the attorney” – in other words, tell the child that the parent’s attorney has asked the parent to have these conversations, and make clear that doing so is part of the process the parent needs to complete in order that the attorney can finalize the planning.

Sometimes a child is unwilling to discuss a parent’s estate planning because the child believes his or her parent is devoting too much time to “final plans” and not enough time on living and enjoying life.  When this is the case, I encourage the parent to explain to the child that getting these matters in order is not compelled by an unhealthy preoccupation with death, but instead by a desire to fully and confidently live.  The reality is that for many people who have not put their estate planning and other affairs in order, there is a constant nagging and emotional uncertainty that bothers them.  They know they have unfinished business, and nothing gets in the way of enjoying life like the weight of unfinished business. 

So, for a parent in this situation I encourage the parent to start the conversation by making it clear that getting an estate plan in place (or addressing an old plan that needs to be updated) is an important part of the parent’s process to ensure they are able to embrace every moment of life - without unnecessary burdens.  

Next week we will address the reverse problem: how might a child talk to a parent who is unwilling to get his or her affairs in order?

If you have any doubts about whether you have all of the legal documents you need in place, do not hesitate to speak to a qualified estate planning attorney. Some law firms, like mine, will even offer free consultations concerning creating or reviewing estate plans. This is a simple task that is well worth your time to get accomplished now – before a crisis occurs.

This has been presented as general information and not as legal advice. Do not engage in legal decision-making without the advice of a competent attorney after discussion of your specific circumstances.