5 Estate Planning Topics to Cover With Parents

Let’s talk about “the talk.” It’s the talk with our parents that we as adult children tend to avoid—sometimes out of fear and other times because it is, simply put, difficult. The thoughts that may race through our minds tend to revolve around “Will they think I'm being greedy?” or “I don’t want to offend them.”

Estate planning is never an easy topic. Many people plan for everything else in their lives but put this subject off. A study from Fidelity Investments found that “43% of parents have not had detailed conversations with family members about long-term care and elder care; another 23% haven't talked about these topics at all.” However, facing our greatest fear, the fact that we all age, cannot be put off for “when the time is right.” The reality is that no one knows when our time is up, but we can plan for the unexpected and help ensure that our loved ones are not left swimming in the wake of our estate planning procrastination.

Although the talk with our parents is one that we should perhaps avoid in the middle of Thanksgiving dinner, it is one that needs to be addressed—and with care and compassion. Below are five topics we should, at the bare minimum, discuss with our parents and tips on how to approach the subjects.

Let’s start with the most basic question:

1. Do You Have a Will or a Trust?

While asking this question will not be the easiest thing you will do, it will help set the foundation for future conversations. A good approach may be bringing up a concern about your own estate planning. Blame it on your estate planning attorney or financial advisor if needed. Crafting the question around your issues may lead to a more natural conversation about their own. The key is to let the conversation take a natural turn by not rushing it, helping to open the line of communication for future discussions. (For related reading, see: What Is a Will and Why Do I Need One?)

2. Have You Named Your Health Care Surrogate and Power of Attorney?

Estate planning doesn’t start and end with the creation of a will or trust. While having one is essential for anyone, regardless of income or net worth, it is important to note that a health care surrogate and power of attorney appointment are among those critical documents too. Whoever is named as the surrogate is able to make health care decisions and receive protected information on behalf of that person if he or she is unable to make those decisions. A power of attorney is similar, except that it extends to financial and general affairs. Seek the help of a qualified estate planning attorney for assistance with these documents.

3. Are Your Named Beneficiaries Current?

Families may change as the years go by, and the beneficiary list created five or 10 years ago may need updating. It’s easy to have this update slip by, especially if your employer’s plan or life insurance agent doesn’t send out yearly reminders, but it should be part of an annual review for everyone. Keeping the list of beneficiaries updated is one way of preventing future problems. It may also help avoid unfortunate issues such as will contests or family disputes about inheritances. (For related reading, see: An Estate Planning Must: Update Your Beneficiaries.)

4. Where Do You Keep Your Important Documents?

In an emergency, at least one designated person should know where to access important documents (e.g. tax returns, financial account statements, bank statements, life insurance policies, long-term-care policies, health insurance, online access information, and advisors’ and attorneys’ contact information). You may find it helpful to set aside an afternoon to review the documents with your parents and ensure everything is up-to-date. If your parents have a safe deposit box, ask where the keys, combinations and any pertinent details are kept. This is not something you need to be looking for with a blueprint of their home in hand.

5. Are There Any Other Personal Wishes or Matters We Should Discuss?

This may be the toughest question of all, especially because no one wants to think about what it means. Once again, compassion and understanding are key. You may discover that your parents have different views from yours, and it is important that those views are expressed ahead of time. While many of these topics will be covered in the will and designation of health care surrogate and power of attorney documents, it is equally important to have a conversation about their personal wishes. No one wants to face familial disputes over how to take care of a sick parent.

While “the talk” with our parents is not one that we may look forward to, it undeniably needs to take place. Postponing it and any related estate planning can leave our loved ones with issues after death that will be costly to resolve. Today, start thinking about how you will initiate this conversation to help ensure that your parents’ wishes are followed and they are well taken care of in the future.

(For related reading, see: How Children Can Help Parents With Retirement.)