Thanksgiving is one of the best opportunities of the year to share quality time with loved ones. Whether it’s sitting around the dinner table or tossing a football back and forth in the yard, the holiday is all about spending time with one another and taking a moment to relax. It’s also one of the only chances that many people have to engage in thoughtful, uninterrupted conversations with the whole family, which means it’s the perfect time to discuss important family matters—estate planning often being at the top of many people's lists of priorities.
Estate planning is a process that requires a great deal of thought and doesn’t typically happen overnight, but the conversation about estate planning with parents and relatives can happen before, during and after Thanksgiving dinner. Since most of the family is present, this would be a good time to bring up the plans you have for your immediate family, as well as your parent’s estate—here’s how to approach the subject.
How to Talk About Estate Planning
1. Plan Ahead
Though conversations about estate planning should not be structured as interventions, it does help to go in with a plan. Make a list of questions to ask and topics to cover, such as whether a will or trust has been established, who to choose as guardians/executors/trustees, and whether or not there’s any life insurance. Preparing some notes prior to initiating the conversation will help to cover the key issues and stay on track if the discussion strays off topic.
Schedule the conversations at different points during the day in order to be productive. The time before dinner may be good for individual or small group discussions. This may be the moment to ask someone to be the legal guardian of your kids, or to bring up a delicate subject with your parents. The conversation over dinner could revolve around building consensus or getting ideas from family members. Remember that many people will take a nap or zone out in front of the TV after the meal, so plan accordingly!
If siblings or other family members will have specific input or key roles in the conversations, be sure to go over your plan with them. This way, you can make the most out of the time you have and create a dialogue that’s both productive and helpful for all parties.
2. Choose a Lead-in
No one wants to feel as if they’re being lectured about estate planning at Thanksgiving dinner, which is why you should never just dive right into the topic from out of nowhere. Instead, look for a lead-in opportunity as you converse, such as the mention of retirement or planning for the future. This can help to ensure that the conversation is natural instead of seeming as if people were waiting to bring it up, which goes a long way when it comes to getting those who you’re trying to reach to actually listen. Lead-ins can be planned ahead too, but starting and maintaining the conversation in a natural way will be more effective.
You can also prep the group by mentioning, before the day of or earlier in the day, that you’d like to initiate a conversation about the subject. Ask family members to come with questions or ideas to bring up during the discussion. This way you can start the dialogue without dominating the conversation.
3. Make it About Them
One of the biggest hurdles that people face when talking about estate planning with loved ones is hurting someone’s feelings or creating divisions within the family. This is a valid fear, but the key is to make the conversation about them and not you. When talking with a parent, discuss the ways in which estate planning will benefit them and the whole family with peace of mind and highlighting the importance of planning ahead with things like advanced care directives. You may even want to look for and mention an example of an estate that failed due to poor planning, which can add tangible weight to the conversation. Being sincere about your intentions is crucial, as is opening up the conversation for questions rather than simply lecturing on the importance of estate planning.
If you ask a family member to fulfill a role such as an executor, be sure to ask if they have questions and to be honest without feeling obligated. Give them time to respond, taking on the duties of a guardian for multiple kids can be overwhelming when first presented. It’s also a good idea to talk with family members that you didn’t choose. It is likely they will find out and hurt feelings can be minimized if they hear it from you. Tell them the reasons behind the decision and if appropriate ask them to be a backup.
While most people think of turkey, football and falling asleep on the couch when Thanksgiving comes to mind, it’s a golden opportunity to discuss planning for the future. Don’t let carbohydrate overload or too much time in front of the TV get in the way of having an important conversation this year—approach the topic with care and thought, and the rest will play out on its own.