At large gatherings of friends and family, the rule is you don't talk about politics, religion, or personal finances. So, who discusses estate planning at Thanksgiving? It’s a time to slow down and enjoy your family before the true holiday rush officially gets underway. Seventy-one percent of Americans say their family is what they’re most thankful for as they gather around the dinner table.
Nevertheless, because Thanksgiving offers a chance to get caught up with the ones you love, it can also open the door to discussions about the future, including how assets are to be distributed among family members and others. With the family gathered together, you may have a prime opportunity to broach the topic.
Don’t Neglect Estate Planning
Estate planning can be a touchy subject. While doing it generally benefits families, it’s often neglected. A 2017 Caring.com survey found that six in 10 Americans lack an estate-planning document, such as a will or living trust. With $30 trillion in wealth set to change hands between Baby Boomers and their heirs over the next few decades, it’s important for families to get started on this – ideally, well before it's an emergency and while the oldest members of the family are still in good physical or mental health. (For related insight, read more about preserving your legacy with a wealth transfer plan.)
Between watching the football game, sleeping off your turkey dinner and heading out for Black Friday shopping, you may want to pencil in time for an estate-planning talk. Here’s how to do it gracefully – and tactfully – this Thanksgiving.
Get the Timing Right
Estate planning isn’t something that generally comes up in everyday conversation, much less at Thanksgiving dinner. You wouldn’t ask one of your kids to pass the rolls, then ask which one of them would like to inherit their great-grandmother’s silver flatware. And if you’re an adult child who wants to discuss estate planning with your parents, questioning whether they’ve given any thought to long-term care insurance probably isn’t wise when they’re carving the turkey.
Jennifer Guimond-Quigley, an estate-planning attorney with a law office in Chicago, says that if you intend to bring up estate planning over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, you should pick a moment when you and your family members can spend time together in a calm, comfortable and private environment. The goal is to make sure everyone is relaxed, with no distractions getting in the way that could send the conversation off course.
Ideally, the parents would bring up the subject first. It's their estate, after all, and it's much easier on adult children if their parents take the lead. But sometimes parents don't – or won't – and that can leave the whole family up in the air, especially as parents get older and eventually frailer and possibly less able to organize the process. That's when children have to find a way to broach the topic. One possible approach, especially if you're in the parents' home, is to talk about where papers are kept and records and things like computer passwords. (This is something couples should also tell each other – do you know your spouse's passwords?) And then steer the conversation to what kinds of plans the family needs to make together.
Once you’ve coordinated a time and place for everyone to talk, establish some ground rules for the discussion. For example, Guimond-Quigley suggests keeping things as transparent as possible. “Have each family member write down their wishes, thoughts or questions, and discuss as a group,” she advises.
Having a checklist of things you want to discuss can help keep the conversation on topic. For example, if you’re a parent, some of the things that may be on your list include:
- Writing a will to spell out how your assets will be divided when you pass away.
- Establishing a living trust, if you have a significant amount of assets, to insulate your heirs against estate taxes.
- Deciding who will act as your will’s executor or, if you establish a trust, your trustee.
- Discussing how your children will handle a long-term care situation if needed – acting as caregivers or making arrangements for assisted-living or nursing home care.
- Setting up financial power-of-attorney designations and drafting a health care directive (adult children should also have these – emergencies don't just strike seniors). (Read more about estate planning topics to discuss with parents.)
If you’re an adult child who’s leading the discussion, you’ll likely want to touch on these same topics. The goal on both sides is to break the ice and create a framework for an ongoing dialogue that goes beyond the Thanksgiving holiday. A weekend gathering isn't a time for final decisions, but it is a time to make a checklist and plans to complete it.
Parents may see their estate-planning needs change over time, as they acquire new assets, get rid of others or experience major life changes, such as a divorce or the death of a spouse. An illness can change one's financial situation, so it's wise not to set up expectations about how much, if anything, will be available to inherit. But it is the time to discuss whether special provisions need to be made for any heirs, for example, if one child in the family has chronic health issues or a disability.
What a weekend can do is establish a common ground for talking about estate planning that makes it easier for adult children to navigate these issues with minimal conflicts. Obviously, it's best if all the adult children can be part of the discussion from the beginning. In some families, that could require individual discussions with each child – or among the children together – before the family meeting.
The Bottom Line
Talking about estate planning can be simple and straightforward, but it can quickly become complicated when emotions get in the way or personalities clash. A Thanksgiving estate-planning discussion can get the ball rolling. When you start moving forward, however, having an estate-planning attorney or a professional financial advisor on board can ease tensions if they arise. Even more important, an estate-planning pro can help parents and children come together to develop appropriate solutions to short- and long-term estate-planning needs.