It’s hard to talk to your parents about estate planning. But making plans can bring you and your parents peace of mind.
It can be the most difficult conversation you’ll ever have with your parents: What are your wishes if you are facing a medical crisis? Who do you want to speak for you if you’re no longer able to speak for yourself? How do you want your estate handled after you’re gone?
However, making such decisions and creating advance directives can bring peace of mind to both you and your parents. Estate planning documents help ensure a person’s wishes are known and carried out when that person isn’t able to communicate them.
"Estate planning is the ultimate act of love," Sherri Stinson, an estate planning attorney in Palm Harbor, FL, told BusinessInsider.com. "You're showing the person that you care about their well-being and that you care about things going the way they should."
(We walk you through 4 steps to creating an estate plan here.)
Why everyone needs estate planning documents
If your parents don’t have an estate plan, it could be because they don’t see themselves as having an estate. The word “estate” evokes images of grand manors and rolling green lawns. But in this context, “estate” simply means your possessions, whether that’s your vintage Rolls Royce or your prized collection of old Matchbox cars. Even if your parents’ possessions aren’t worth a lot monetarily, they no doubt have sentimental value.
Failing to leave a will can end up being risky, time-consuming, contentious, and expensive. A judge will decide how your parent’s property is divided, and it may not be how your parent envisioned. If your parent wants to be sure that your disabled sister gets the house and that the Matchbox collection remains intact, it’s best to draft a will.
Other estate planning documents include a healthcare proxy, a living will, and a power of attorney. A healthcare proxy names a person who will make healthcare decisions on your parent’s behalf if they are unable to. Without one, a court may appoint someone to make those decisions, and it may not be the person your parent would have chosen. Also, if you’re not the proxy, you could be denied the opportunity to get medical information from your parent’s doctor.
A living will states your parent’s wishes for life-support measures under certain circumstances. Without one, a hospital committee may feel ethically bound to continue life support far longer than your parent would have wished.
A power of attorney names a trusted person to conduct financial matters on your parent’s behalf. Without one, a court might appoint someone who is unreliable or, worse, unethical.
Bringing up the topic of estate planning
If you haven’t broached the topic of estate planning with your parents, you’re not alone. A national survey found that 90% of people know that they should talk to family members about end-of-life issues but only 30% had actually had the talk.
The reasons they haven’t broached the topic:
- It’s not something they need to worry about at this point in life.
- They aren’t sick yet.
- The subject makes them feel uncomfortable.
- They don’t want to upset their loved ones.
- It never seems like the right time to discuss it.
Unfortunately, if you wait too long, it might be too late. "The idea should be: Let's start these conversations at the kitchen table, not in the ICU," Ellen Goodman, founder of the Conversation Project, an organization devoted to helping people share their wishes for care through the end of life, told Next Avenue.
Try these ideas for getting the conversation rolling:
- If a parent mentions that a friend is in the hospital, ask them if they’ve thought about what their wishes would be in that situation.
- Mention that a friend is managing end-of-life planning for their parents and ask them what their thoughts are about making their own plan.
- Ask your parents about the end-of-life experience of their own parents.
- Tell your parents you’re drafting your own will and ask for their thoughts on choosing an executor.
Accessing estate planning forms and help
You don’t necessarily need an attorney for estate planning. Some forms, such as for a healthcare proxy, can be downloaded from the internet.
According to the National Institute of Aging, many states have their own forms that can be accessed and completed for free. Contact your parent’s state attorney general’s office or their local Area Agency on Aging.
Drafting a will is very important and there are numerous ways to do it at different costs, from finding an estate planning attorney (the most expensive) to using a do-it-yourself software program or a free online kit. If your parent’s estate is fairly straightforward, the latter option might be worth a try. Be sure that your parent’s will is updated regularly to account for new circumstances.
If you need help, your local Area Agency on Aging can also contact state legal aid offices, state bar associations, and local nonprofit and/or social service agencies for help in drafting it and other documents or make a referral for legal assistance.
Help your parents choose the right Medicare plan
While you’re helping your parents with their estate planning documents, make sure your parents’ Medicare plan is covering their changing needs. Medicare Advantage plans often provide the dental, vision, and hearing benefits that become more critical as our parents age. Check out our easy-to-use Find a Plan tool to compare available coverage in their area.