Holidays give us the opportunity to spend more time with family. When we spend more time with our aging parents at these holiday gatherings, we often notice the early indications that a parent is slipping. You may notice a parent forgetting things or no longer participating in things he or she always enjoyed. Perhaps it is a conversation over coffee, and a short while later, Dad is repeating himself with no signs that he remembers the same conversation the two of you had that morning.
Many adults are uncomfortable broaching the topic of estate planning with their aging parents, worrying that parents may be insulted or offended. At times, this worry is well-founded - the prospect of losing independence can be frustrating, depressing and very frightening. It is easy to put off. Most often, the cost of avoiding that conversation is a high one. Rather than a smooth transition with a well-established plan, families often end up in a situation where they are trying to manage a crisis, while also dealing with the accompanying emotional upheaval. You may consider it an unpleasant topic to approach with your parents, but becoming informed and organized will help you more efficiently assist them, as well as yourself and other family members.
Be prepared for the conversation by coming up with a list of topics to cover and actions to be taken. What is their monthly income? What are the expenses? How do they keep track bills and account balances? Are they using automatic bill pay? Where do they keep information on account numbers, PINs, CDs, stocks and bonds, retirement accounts, etc.? Do they have a financial advisor? Where do they keep important papers like social security cards, birth and marriage certificates, insurance policies and tax returns? Who do they trust to speak for them if they become disabled? Do they have current powers of attorney and health care directives? Do they have a will?
Holidays and family gatherings can be ideal times to start a conversation. You will likely want to include siblings and other extended family that will likely to be involved in future decisions. Maintaining transparency by keeping family members “in the loop” is important – it avoids misunderstandings and any appearance of impropriety or self-serving interests on your part. Your parents’ home is an ideal place to have the conversation because they will be in a comfortable and secure environment. This will also make it easy for them to show you where important documents are located.
Be direct and diplomatic. Express your respect for your parents and acknowledge that it is an uncomfortable topic. Tell them that you want them to be independent as long as possible and are willing to assist them. A good tactic is to describe your planning. Describe the steps you have taken to ease the burden on family members. Of course, it will be harder to convince them of the importance of planning if you haven’t done yours. Perhaps a great approach would be for you and your parents to do the planning together.
As parents age, their needs change, and decisions will need to be made about their living situation and finances. They should continue to make those decisions independently as long as possible. Let them know that planning now provides a roadmap for the family so that when they do need help, the choices made reflect their wants and needs and not those of well-meaning relatives. Planning is the most effective way to avoid personal, financial and emotional hardship because it keeps control with your parents where it belongs. Consulting with an estate planning attorney can help you make sure your parents are comfortable and secure in their senior years.
James M. Miskell received his law degree from the University of Georgia in 1993. His Asset Protection, Estate Planning, and Elder Law practice has offices located in Lawrenceville and Johns Creek. He offers educational workshops and free consultations to assist clients as well as fellow professionals in creating individualized solutions. Visit his website: www.LetsTalkEstatePlanning.com. For more information, see his ad in this issue.