With the holidays upon us, we look forward to the family gathering. This gives us a great opportunity to talk about the difficult and emotional subject of estate planning, which is essential for everyone. You shouldn’t assume everything will be taken care of unless you’re sure your parents have an up-to-date will and a broader plan for what should happen in the event of disability or death.
According to a recent survey, less than half of Americans have a will. If your mother or father dies intestate – that is, without a will – such a situation could lead to additional emotional strain and stress. In all likelihood, this will also have financial implications for any of their children and/or other family members.
The following 8 tips can help you discuss difficult topics thoroughly and respectfully and prepare for the road ahead:
1. Plan what you can
Discussing estate planning and all that it entails is not something that should happen without any planning. Make a list of topics and questions, then tell your parents what you want to discuss with them. If possible, set a time and date and choose a private location where everyone will feel comfortable. Be aware that you may need to schedule a few conversations as there may be too much to cover in one session. Remember to use respectful and supportive language, and to pause if emotions run high or stress becomes overwhelming.
2. Identify key people
You may need to contact several key people for estate planning purposes. Ask your parents for the names and contact information of their doctors, lawyers, financial planners and/or accountants, insurance brokers, ministers, and closest friends.
3. Bring up the subject of a will
Determine if there is an existing will and if the document is up to date. If a will was created more than five years ago, check to see if they would consider revising it to make sure it accurately reflects their wishes. Establish where they keep the document and confirm who they have appointed as their personal representative(s). The same is true for any trust that may have been created.
4. Talk about power of attorney
Find out if your parents have appointed someone to handle their financial and other affairs if they become incapacitated. If they haven’t given someone power of attorney, suggest that they consider doing so.
5. Discuss end-of-life issues
Although the topic may be uncomfortable to discuss, you should discuss your parents’ end-of-life wishes with them. Their estate plan will be incomplete without these guidelines, so it’s important to include them. The form these guidelines take should include:
• Appointment of a health care representative who can make medical decisions for your parents if they become incapable of making these decisions themselves. You can consult an estate planning/elder law lawyer to obtain the relevant documents.
• A medical or advance directive that explains the type of care they would like to receive and whether or not life support should be used. These guidelines are normally included in the document that appoints the health care representative. The guideline should reference the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA) when naming the representative.
• A living will contains instructions for withdrawing or terminating life support under specific conditions, such as your parents becoming terminally ill, falling into a coma, or entering a vegetative state. These instructions are now normally included in the document that appoints the health care representative.
• Physician Orders for Scope of Treatment (POST) is an advanced care planning tool normally used for people with critical illness. However, the POST form can also be used as a conversation starter regarding care and treatment decisions in the event someone becomes seriously ill.
6. Ask about insurance policies
Talk about the type of insurance policies in place. This includes health insurance – Medicare or private, life insurance, home insurance, long-term care insurance, and disability insurance.
In some cases, there may be funeral insurance or other policies to cover funeral or burial expenses. You will need to know them and have all their details.
If you haven’t already, write down the names and contact details of insurance brokers. Check where police documents are kept and, if possible, make copies.
7. Request access to tax returns
It can be useful to know where the tax return documents are stored. Although these documents are not necessary after death, they could be if the succession becomes complicated. Confirm where you can find these documents and that they are all up to date.
8. Discuss all the other practicalities
In addition to topics such as power of attorney and insurance, there are several other practical aspects that you should include in your conversations.
• Make a list of their accounts – financial accounts such as bank accounts and mutual funds, credit accounts and store accounts
• Check if they are registered organ donors or if they would consider donating their organs
• Talk about the memorial service they want and whether they want to be buried, cremated or another option.
Estate planning conversations are tough no matter how you approach them. Do your best to be patient with your parents and transparent with other family members about what you are doing. If you have siblings, invite them into the conversation.
Accept that these talks may take time and avoid putting pressure on those involved to get it done in a matter of hours. Small details are essential and should not be rushed. If you think you need help breaking the ice, ask your loved ones to read this article. Finally, always consult a lawyer if you are unsure of the legalities or implications of any of the points mentioned.
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