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Talking to senior parents about the future

"Only put off until tomorrow what you are willing to die having left undone" Pablo Picasso

Estate planning is about more than having a will to distribute property when one dies. Perhaps the most important aspect of estate planning is planning for how one will live as they age, which includes planning for disability and long term care. 

James Miskell, Attorney at Law

Planning that delegates authority to trusted family members to provide support in these circumstances can include documents like powers of attorney, living wills, durable healthcare powers of attorneys, healthcare directives, and living trusts.  Careful planning reduces anxiety for everyone in the family as situations change. Aging parents who have the assistance of family members can remain independent longer as they age and encounter health related obstacles.

Many adult children are uncomfortable broaching the topic of estate planning with their aging parents.  They worry their parents may be insulted or offended, and occasionally, this worry is well-founded!  The prospect of losing independence can be frustrating, scary and downright depressing.  This is a conversation that is easy to put off.  Unfortunately, the likely result of procrastinating is crisis management rather than smooth transition.  While you may consider it an unpleasant topic to approach with your parents, becoming informed and organized will help you more efficiently assist them as well as yourself.  

Be prepared for the conversation by coming up with a list of topics to cover and actions to be taken.  Start with broad questions:  What is their monthly income and what are their expenses?  How do they keep track of the bills?  Are they using automatic bill pay for any of the recurring expenses?  Where do they keep account numbers, PINs, CDs, and stock and bond information?  Do they have a financial advisor?  Where do they keep important papers – 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 powers of attorney and healthcare directives that are current?

Choose to start the conversation at an opportune time and place.  Holidays and family gatherings can be ideal times to start a conversation.  Siblings and other extended family that are likely to be involved in future decisions can be included.  Family members who are geographically closer to your parents may have unique insights.  Maintaining transparency by keeping family “in the loop” is important in order to prevent misunderstandings.  Your parents’ home is an ideal location. It’s easier for your parents to show you where important documents are located rather than tell you over the phone.  

Be direct and diplomatic.  Express your respect for your parents and acknowledge that discussing finances 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 own planning.  Describe the steps you have taken to ease the burden on family members in the event of an emergency in your own household.  Of course, this will not be persuasive if you have not formalized your own estate planning.  You won’t stand much of a chance of motivating them to do something you haven’t done for yourself.  Show them it is important by doing it yourself.  If you haven’t, perhaps you can do it together.

In the end, the best time to have discussions of this nature with your folks is when they are competent and self-sufficient adults.  As always, plan ahead.  Remember above all that their planning should reflect their choices and preferences, not your own.  Consulting with an estate planning attorney on their behalf 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 and Estate Planning Law practice is located in Lawrenceville, Georgia. He offers free educational workshops and consultations to assist clients as well as fellow professionals in creating individualized solutions.

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