At large gatherings of friends and family, the rule is you don't talk about politics, religion, or personal finances. So, who wants to discuss estate planning at Thanksgiving? After all, it’s a time to slow down and enjoy your family before the true holiday rush officially gets underway. 70% of Americans say that 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 creating a thoughtful plan of succession generally benefits families, it’s often neglected and the majority of Americans do not yet have an estate-planning document, such as a will or living trust. But with $30 trillion in wealth set to change hands between Baby Boomers and their heirs over the next few decades, it’s essential that families get started—ideally, well before it's an emergency and while the oldest members of the family are still in good physical or mental health. 

Key Takeaways

  • Estate planning is often a touchy subject, but Thanksgiving might be a suitable time to discuss plans because the family is gathered together.
  • An estate plan might include a will, a trust, or both a will and a trust.
  • If the topic is important to you, set aside some time to discuss estate planning when everyone is together.
  • It doesn't hurt to make a checklist to make sure the conversation stays on topic.
  • The discussion should probably focus on next steps rather than trying to resolve all of the issues at once.

Between watching the football game, sleeping off your turkey dinner, or 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 ideal if they’re in the middle of carving the turkey.

Jennifer Guimond-Quigley, an estate-planning attorney with a law office in Chicago, says that, if you want to bring up estate planning over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, pick a moment when you and your family members can spend time together. Then find a calm, comfortable, and private environment. The goal is to make sure everyone is relaxed, with no distractions that could send the conversation off course.

Ideally, parents would first bring up the topic. It's their estate, after all, and it's much easier for 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 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.

Set Boundaries

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 might want to accomplish and add to your to-do list include:

  • Write a will to spell out how your assets will be divided when you pass away.
  • Establish a living trust, if you have a significant amount of assets, to insulate your heirs against estate taxes.
  • Decide who will act as your will’s executor or, if you establish a trust, your trustee.
  • Discuss how your children will handle a long-term care situation if needed, such as acting as caregivers or making arrangements for in-home care or assisted living.
  • Set up financial power of attorney designations and draft a health care directive (adult children should also have these because emergencies don't just strike seniors).

If you’re an adult child who’s leading the discussion, you probably want to touch on these same topics. The goal on both sides is to make everyone at ease 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 you can make a checklist and outline the 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. If one child in the family has chronic health issues or a disability, you might want to discuss whether special provisions need to be made for any heirs.

The discussion over the holiday weekend can establish 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 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 involved can ease tensions if they arise. Even more critical, an estate-planning pro can help parents and children come together to develop appropriate solutions to short-term and long-range estate-planning needs.