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How to talk to your parents about their estate plan

Sep 13, 2021 | RBC Wealth Management


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By understanding what your parents value most, you will be better equipped to use any potential inheritance in a way that would fulfill their wishes.

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For many people, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a reminder of their own mortality and the nudge they needed to finally start thinking about how they want to pass on their estate.

In the United States, there were more Google searches for “online will” during April 2020 than at any other time since 2011, according to a study of Google Trends data by the online legal service LegalZoom.

For those with aging parents, the pandemic may have also prompted you to wonder whether they have an estate plan in place. It's not uncommon for older adults to neglect to share details about their estates or their estate plans with their adult children. Unfortunately, that lack of communication often results in family strife later on, as well as an inability for heirs to be sure they are fulfilling their parents' wishes.

“The best way to diffuse potential family discord is to talk through all these things beforehand,” says Malia Haskins, wealth strategist at RBC Wealth Management-U.S.

While it may seem awkward or even self-serving to attempt a conversation with your parents about their estate plans, starting that dialogue is the only way you—and they—can be sure their wishes for their health and assets will be fulfilled.

Put your parents at the heart of the discussion

You may be curious about your parents' estate plans for many reasons, and those reasons are likely valid. But if you want to get your parents talking, you'll need to approach the conversation with a focus on their point of view.

“As people age, there are generally two things that are really important to them: control and legacy,” says Angie O'Leary, head of wealth planning at RBC Wealth Management–U.S. “They want to feel they're still in control of their world and they want to feel that they're leaving the legacy they hoped they would.”

Start the conversation from the legacy perspective, O'Leary recommends. You might comment on how much your parents have worked and saved throughout their lives, and ask what they'd most like to do with their wealth. “Don't preach to them; instead, focus on the things that are very important to them,” O'Leary says. “It may be their grandchildren's education, making sure their church is taken care of, making sure family members take a vacation together every year, or that the family's second home is maintained.”

By understanding what your parents value most, you and other heirs will be better equipped to use any potential inheritance in a way that would make them happy. This approach will also enable you to move from talking about what your parents value to discussing whether they've taken the necessary steps to ensure those values will be honored with their estate.

Key questions to ask

When your parents start talking about their estate plans, there are a few important elements that you should be sure to ask about:

  • Do they have a will and power of attorney? If so, find out how and when the documents were created and whether they need to be revised or updated. If these documents do not exist, encourage your parents to create them: Dying without a will means the state gets to decide what happens to their assets.
  • Whom have they named as attorney and executor? Someone needs to be named as the decision-maker for when your parents pass away or if they become incapacitated. Rather than trying to influence their decision, simply ask who this person will be so you can ensure their wishes are fulfilled. Your parents likely have reasons for selecting a particular person, and discussing those reasons may help diffuse any potential family conflicts later on.
  • Are their assets properly titled, and are their beneficiary designations correct? This is especially important after a major life event, such as a divorce or death of a spouse. Beneficiary designations trump will and trust directives, so they should be periodically checked and updated.
  • Do they have health care directives? These documents should outline each parent's wishes in case they become incapacitated and are unable to make decisions about their own health. Find out if the documents are up to date and on file with their care providers.
  • Where will they live? Approach this conversation from your parent's point of view, O'Leary suggests. Ask them, “How important is it for you to live independently in your home, and at what point might that be impractical?” If it's a priority for them, discuss what needs to be done to make it possible, such as appointing a power of attorney who understands their wishes and making changes to the house that may help accommodate mobility challenges or prevent falls. Additionally, there are now a host of resources available that can help support independent living, such as handyman services, video conferencing programs, online shopping and meal delivery options.
  • Where is the information located? You or the decision-maker your parents have selected will need to know where to find your parents' estate and other vital documents. Encourage your parents to create a list of assets and include it with the documents. As we become more digitally dependent, directions for how to access electronic records are essential.

“Estate planning is a true act of caring on the parents' behalf,” Haskins says. “But to ensure their plans are carried out, communication is as important as the planning.”

In many cases, the conversation about estate plans is not a “one and done” experience. Your parents may not open up about their plans the first time you broach the subject, but “keep revisiting it,” Haskins says. Over time, you may be able to show them that instead of looking out for your own interests, what you want is to make sure their wishes will be carried out. And the best way you can do that is to understand what their wishes are.

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Wealth planning