Here at AgingOptions, we write a great deal about the importance of having an up-to-date estate plan. Without one, your heirs are virtually certain to face confusion and complexity as they seek to unravel your affairs after you’re gone. In order to save them the drama and expense, and to ensure that your assets go where you want them, a current plan is a must.
But as your own parents age, you may find yourself in the awkward place of having to ask them about their own estate plans. This can be a challenging topic since it might make you seem greedy and impatient for your mom or dad to pass away. Talking about death and mortality is also a subject many of us desperately seek to avoid.
For those and other reasons we liked this recent NextAvenue article by freelance writer Rosie Wolf Williams. She writes from a first-person perspective and explains just how important it is to broach a delicate topic with love and tact.
Mom’s Will Turned Out to be Useless
What Williams describes at the start of her NextAvenue article can really only be described as a nightmare scenario for any adult child. She writes, “My mother told me many times over the years that she had a will, and I believed her. When she passed away, we discovered that her will was 40 years old — and completely useless.”
Williams goes on to explain, “To start, she had never signed the copy we found, and the man named to be executor had died a decade before she did. Grandchildren born after she wrote the will were not mentioned, and items left to some people had long ago been passed on to others.”
Williams is quick to note that her family’s situation is far from being an isolated one. In fact, it’s pretty common, and it’s mostly for one simple reason: older people often don’t want to talk about death, especially with their families. She writes, “Of course, you could simply ask your parents or others about their wishes, but how do you make sure the transition after they have died is smooth, without sounding harsh or greedy?” Williams then goes on to provide some helpful answers.
Who Needs a Will?
So, what happens if your parent dies without a will? According to experts, the short answer is: it depends.
Rebecca Goldfarb, an estate planning and elder law attorney in Tarzana, California, says, “If you die with very few assets and you only have one child, you may not need a will. But what if you have more assets or more children? You have to bite the bullet and have the tough conversations and probably hire a lawyer to help.”
Goldfarb acknowledges that to some this necessary chore might sound unpleasant, expensive, and complicated, but it doesn’t have to be. In fact, she adds that “these conversations can bring you closer to each other in the end.” There’s a huge sense of relief and added peace of mind when that will or trust is finally in place, she implies.
What Wills Can Do
David R. York, a certified public accountant in Salt Lake City, strongly advises that everyone should have both an estate plan and a will in place at the bare minimum.
He also recommends the following points to consider, based on an individual’s situation. We’ve included the list verbatim from Williams’ article.
- If the loved one is a part of a blended family, it’s critical to do planning to avoid either a full or partial disinheritance of a surviving spouse or their children.
- It’s important to prepare a will and appoint guardians if there are minor children or adult children with special needs.
- Wills are especially important if heirs might squabble or if you want certain assets to go to specific people.
- Single people need a plan for their assets, especially if they are in a committed relationship but not married. Some state inheritance laws typically do not provide for a domestic partner.
On the importance of these considerations, Williams writes, “A will is an important first step to ensure that a relationship is recognized before a loved one dies, so the remaining partner can access their right to property or benefits. If you die without a will or living trust — a situation known as intestate succession — your assets may be distributed according to rules set out in state law, which differ from state to state and may be very different from what you would choose.”
Is Their Will Up to Date?
The unfortunate—and sometimes frustrating—truth is that many older adults will tell you that they are prepared, when in truth they aren’t at all. Their will might be old and outdated, or they might have left their will and other important papers unsigned. Both can lead to real problems.
“Clarifying the status of older adults’ wills is important to a smoother transition of assets and should be addressed when they are of sound mind and clearly able to make their own decisions about their estates,” Williams writes.
But this topic also needs to be handled with empathy and care. Luciano Grubissich, medical director of Boston-based Family First, says, “This is always a conversation that needs to be approached with a lot of caution. With somebody that is active and healthy, you can approach the subject more freely. Ask if they have a will, want to have one or what are their wishes once they are deceased. You can also state that these steps are essential to secure his or her legacy and protect their assets from estate taxes and lengthy processes after [their death].”
Confronting the Topic of Mortality
In her article, Williams writes, “Before approaching the subject of the will, you need to consider that the loved one may be guarded and resistant to talk about it.”
Grubissich agrees. He explains, “Nobody likes to contemplate their own mortality or talk about what will happen when they die, especially if they are sick. Once you understand that you can approach the subject by acknowledging that it will be a tough conversation and that they are in charge on when to continue or stop, it may help the conversation go more smoothly. It may take several conversations, but once the conversation is established you can offer to be the point person to make all the changes needed to assure a smooth transition.”
Discussing a Will with Love and Respect
Grubissich offers the following tips for approaching this discussion with your loved one. We appreciated these so much that we have also included these verbatim:
- Discuss these issues with your parents with the utmost respect for who they are and have been in your life.
- Empathize with your parents. They are entering a difficult phase in their lives and are no doubt aware of it, perhaps even frightened. Show sensitivity to what they are going through.
- Be very careful to help them maintain their dignity, which they are holding on to very dearly. Don’t push them where they are not yet ready to go. If a topic seems too difficult for them, leave it for another day.
- Offer ideas and options, not ultimatums. Ask for their thoughts on the subjects at hand. They are much more likely to work with you on these issues if they feel that they are an equal partner in the decision-making.
- Start these discussions early. You do not what to be in the middle of a crisis when you have to address these issues. That will not go well.
- If, despite your best efforts, the conversation with your parents becomes fraught, consider bringing a professional into the discussions, someone who is used to dealing with such issues.
- Finally, don’t be discouraged or give up. This is a period of great transition for your parents and for you and it will take time and effort to get it right.
The Vital Importance of the Right Legal Advice
Williams advises that it’s definitely wise to have a lawyer involved with any legal processes. To make things easier on your parents, especially if they have limited mobility, offer to arrange or provide transportation for them both to and from the lawyer’s office.
Estate planner Goldfarb suggests, “I encourage you to find a lawyer you like — yes, friendly, supportive and smart lawyers exist — who will teach you what you need for your specific family. Find someone who focuses his or her practice on estate planning and not five other areas of law.”
“Make sure they value a lifelong relationship and don’t see this as a one-time transaction with fill-in-the-blank forms,” she adds. “These documents should be modified as circumstances and the laws change. The lawyer should also be detailed, plan comprehensively and administer a lot of estate plans so they can share their 20/20 hindsight with you in their planning. You deserve the best.”
Williams concludes by bringing the story back around to her own family’s situation, an ongoing journey. She writes, “We have all decided to spare our own children from having to deal with the same issue when we eventually die. Creating a will of our own, along with ensuring other legal directives are in place, can ease their minds and allow them to move on quickly, and with good memories.”
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(originally reported at www.nextavenue.org)