“Missy’s had a major stroke.”
The text message appeared on my cell phone from my sister, matter-of-factly. I was eating tacos with my husband in Seattle when I heard the news about Missy – a woman who was like a mother to me and didn’t have any children of her own. I was shocked and didn’t know what to do next.
Did she have any insurance? What and where were her assets? Did she have an Advance Healthcare Directive, and what the heck was her philosophy on end-of-life care?
Heartbreak Amidst Confusion
What happened next was a flurry of calls, texts, travel arrangements, and mass confusion. We met her wonderful niece for the first time, and she spent a huge amount of time ransacking Missy’s apartment looking for evidence of assets or end-of-life wishes. We found money shoved into socks and old suitcases, and we think we identified all of her assets.
Going through this heartbreaking process in the middle of an emergency made me realize how much better it would have been if I understood her financial and end-of-life wishes before she could no longer communicate them. It also illustrated to me how important it would be to have these conversations in advance with my own parents. In addition to knowing the logistics of how to take care of expenses, it would hopefully lift the burden of any decision-making around end-of-life care from both my sister and me.
So how can you approach your own parents about their estate planning and wishes? It’s not an easy conversation to have, especially if they’re not open to sharing the details of their private finances with you. Here are three tips to help prepare you for this important conversation.
3 Communication Tips
1) Be Sensitive
Be aware and sensitive to the fact that there can be multiple reasons why your parents wouldn’t want to have this conversation. Some common situations you may encounter include their being afraid of not having enough assets to last through their retirement, not being prepared to make end-of-life decisions (i.e. being paralyzed by their own mortality), or not having done the paperwork at all.
2) Choose the Time & Place Wisely
Choose a place where it feels safe and more comfortable to have a meaningful conversation, and then make sure you have the appropriate amount of time carved out of your schedules. Setting aside a few hours in their home could be a great option.
On the other hand, trying to discuss estate planning at an NFL game during the 3rd quarter is probably not ideal. Furthermore, remind them in advance that you have the best intentions and simply want to make sure you know their wishes in advance so you can honor them when the time comes.
3) Don’t Be Afraid of the Details
Delve into all the details and don’t be afraid to ask what you might think are stupid questions. At the very least, make sure you have an agreed upon location where everything will be documented in the case of an emergency. Some specific things you may want to ask about include:
- Accounts (checking, savings, retirement, cash, trust funds) – all institution names and account numbers
- Any active insurance policies – institution names and policy numbers
- Safety Deposit box location and access information
- Will, trust and Advance Healthcare Directive document location and details – Who is the executor or trustee, and are they aware of their roles? Are there beneficiaries named? If these documents do not exist at all, gently encourage them to get the documents created immediately so their wishes can be carried out.
- Power of Attorney – would your parents be comfortable with creating a durable power of attorney now so that you have access to their assets in case of an emergency?
Making Choices for Missy
As for Missy, we made the best decisions we could with the limited time and information we were allowed. Together with her family, we made a decision to pursue palliative care, and Missy’s major assets went home with her niece to sort out. We did our best, but every decision was second-guessed and filled with doubt. It could have been handled so much better.
Talking about end-of-life logistics can be highly emotional and even controversial. If your parents give you insights you disagree with, try to remain calm and talk it over with them. While it may be difficult to understand their philosophies or decisions, thank them for giving you a glimpse into their affairs. They’ll appreciate your efforts and sensitivity. And at the end of the day, you will be grateful to at least have had the chance to talk about their wishes while they were still able to clearly communicate with you.