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How to Talk to Aging Parents About Who Gets What in the Will

Liane Starr
April 24, 2018

It requires tact, but the conversation should be had sooner than you think. 

How to Talk to Aging Parents About Who Gets What in the Will

Jenna said she didn't think it was possible to feel worse than she already did after her mother's death, but her conversation with her little brother, Robert, about splitting up the estate was devastating. She had always thought it was clear her mother's jewelry would go to her as the only daughter, but suddenly he wanted his "share." It wasn't the only thing they fought about, but years later, it was the argument she remembered and saw as the reason why she hadn't talked to him in five years.  

Most parents -- and adult children -- would prefer to avoid disagreements and hurt feelings revolving around inherited items, and the best way to do this is through a detailed will. But how is it possible to ask for what you want without seeming gruesome, or worse, greedy?  

Be Kind 

While you may be worrying about who gets Mom's china, nagging her about what happens after she dies is not the way to resolve the issue.  

"Family members need to be sensitive to the emotions that come along with the conversation," said Lakelyn Hogan, a gerontologist and caregiver advocate at Home Instead Senior Care in Nebraska.  

Bring It up Before a Health Crisis 

Be sure you’re taking action now, while your parent is still relatively healthy and not under any duress. 

"When there's a health crisis, conversations tend to be rushed and not done with as much finesse," said Jennifer L. FitzPatrick, gerontology instructor for John Hopkins University and author of "Cruising Through Caregiving: Reducing the Stress of Caring for Your Loved One." "It can be very threatening to the person experiencing the health issue. Often, that person becomes anxious that it's assumed that he or she is imminently dying, whether or not this is true." 

Don't Assume You're Getting Repaid 

Did you loan your aging parents some cash thinking you'd see it again when their estate is settled? Or maybe you gave them extravagant gifts and wouldn't mind making use of them yourself someday. Don't assume they're coming back to you, said Patrick Simasko, elder law attorney and wealth preservation specialist at Simasko Law in Michigan.  

"Often times, there is miscommunication and misinformation between children and various people involved (who) assume they're entitled to certain things,” Simasko said. “For example, sometimes children who give gifts to their living parents think those gifts belong to them when their parents pass. This is not the case."  

Your parent may choose to regift to a relative they deem needy or perhaps a charity.  

"Your parents can do whatever they want with their estate,” Simasko said. 

Use the 40/70 Rule 

When your parents reach the age of 70 (or you reach 40), it's probably a good time to have a talk about end-of-life choices.  

"The age of 70 is a general age when older adults should consider talking to their children about their wishes," Hogan said. "Of course, this conversation can take place earlier, and the sooner the better. The reason this is so important is because often older adults are generally still in good health at age 70 and have the mental capacity to express their wishes. Knowing an older adult’s wishes ahead of time can save adult children time and considerable stress if a crisis were to occur." 

Make It a Team Effort 

If you have siblings, it might be a good time to call them.  

"It’s effective if more than one person is part of the process of encouraging the older loved one to make decisions," FitzPatrick said. "For example, if there are several adult kids, it works best when they each are on board with encouraging Dad to make his wishes known."  

Reach out to professionals who may have some sway with Mom and Dad, too.  

"Often a doctor can help with this by explaining how important advance directives are,” FitzPatrick said. “Sometimes a spiritual leader (if the older person is religious) can help, as well. Spiritual leaders are often very good at helping the person to consider legacy (heirlooms, where items are going) and can share stories of challenges family members have when there are no clear instructions. Often this will be the catalyst for someone putting wishes in writing -- not wanting to leave chaos and confusion for adult kids and grandchildren." 

Know You May Have to Do This Again 

Should life get complicated, it will likely be necessary to revisit the topic even after you think it has been put to bed.  

"It is important to keep in mind that this is not a topic that should be discussed just once at age 70," Hogan said. "It is good to keep lines of communication open, especially if life circumstances change. For example, if a spouse passes away and they were listed as Power of Attorney (POA) for the surviving spouse, the family would want to revisit the conversation to be sure that the documents are updated with a new POA, and then check in with the surviving spouse to see if he or she has any changes to their end of life wishes.” 

Don't Try to Tackle It All at Once 

You may want to get this uncomfortable conversation over with, but don't expect it to be one-and-done.  

"Very rarely does all of this get done in one conversation," FitzPatrick said. "First, be prepared that the initial time these topics are introduced, the older person is unlikely to commit to any plans. It often takes patience and persistence to get any of these decisions to be made. So I believe the adult kids or other family members need to remind themselves that the first conversation may not lead to any action, but keep at it.” 

Try to Bring It up Organically 

FitzPatrick suggested talking not about your elder loved one's choices, but your own.  

"I love when family members broach the topic in the context of their own wishes," she said. "For example, when a 50-year-old daughter tells her Mom that she is leaving certain furniture or jewelry to her own daughters, it opens up a natural discussion. I find that these discussions are much easier for an older person to handle when we don’t make it about them ‘being old’ or in poor health. It’s typically more well-received when the discussion revolves around the fact that we are all going to die.” 

Use a Method That Works for Your Family 

Don't feel constrained by your ideas about how this topic should be handled -- remember how your family communicates and act accordingly.  

"It really depends on your relationship," FitzPatrick said. "In many relationships, you can be direct and feelings won’t be hurt. It can help to use humor, too. In some relationships, saying 'Don’t forget to leave me that in your will' with humor is fine. In other relationships, it would be offensive. Know your loved one. In other relationships, it might make sense to sit down for a serious discussion about why a particular object has meaning for you. Explaining the ‘why’ can be important for requesting a particular item."  

They May Not Tell You What They’re Planning 

While you may be sure you're getting the family house or other valuables, remember that you may not end up in the will at all.  

"Parents who decide to give away their entire estate to charities in lieu of family members are not a very common situation," Simasko said.  

It may come as a surprise to know that parents who do exclude family members from their wills may be counseled to do so by financial advisors.  

"If you’re planning on giving your entire estate to a charity, it’s best to not tell your family members about this choice you’ve made,” Simasko said. “If you do, it gives your family members an opportunity to barrage and integrate you."  

During your conversation with your loved ones, it may come up that they intend to disinherit specific family members. So that you're not left trying to answer difficult questions, recommend an ethical will.  

"An ethical will has no legal binding but it’s a statement or philosophy in regards to what you’re doing and why you’re doing it,” Simasko said. “Leaving an explanation in an ethical will can give the disinherited individual some relief and closure to the situation.” 

Be Persistent 

If your loved one just will not discuss the topic for any reason, it may just have to stay unresolved -- but that doesn't mean you should drop the subject if it's important to you.  

"If a parent is adamant that he or she won’t discuss it, the best thing to do is be patient and persistent," FitzPatrick said. "But ultimately this person is an adult. Some parents will never make preparations in advance. All we can do is encourage and persuade that person to make decisions about their health, money, and property so we know their wishes.” 

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