Ten years ago, I tried to talk to my parents about estate planning, and the conversation lasted about a minute, with my mom saying it was taken care of, and wouldn’t elaborate on what “it” was.
My halfhearted attempts since then went nowhere, but this year I knew I had to get beyond my parents’ reticence to talk. While both my mom, 84-year-old Wilhelmina Gorworowski and stepfather, 89-year-old Gene Gorworowski, are in relatively good health for their ages, my mom fell and injured her hip this fall. She is on the mend, but it was a sign that I couldn’t wait to have this delicate conversation.
I’m not alone in this situation. 2020 Census Bureau data show 12 million Americans are over 80. In many places, a quarter of people are over 65. Research from Cerulli Associates suggests that $84.4 trillion will be transferred between generations and charities through 2045.
I knew that my parents had a will and had made cremation arrangements, but I didn’t know what other planning they had done. My parents don’t have a large estate, but they have some assets: a home, a car, a checking account and at least one retirement account. What exactly they had and where I could find the records were a mystery to me.
My sister, Deanne Padilla, agreed we needed to talk to them together, and she set up a weekend lunch date with my mom.
Financial advisors told me to prepare a list of questions ahead of time to cover the topics I needed to address. I would ask the questions, and if the conversation drifted off-topic or became tense, my sister’s job was to reiterate that the purpose of our get-together was to ensure their daughters would be able to fulfill their wishes.
Knowing I planned to write an article for Barron’s about our meeting, I mentioned to my mom that I would be interviewing them for a story about estate planning. Mom agreed, so I took it as a good sign.
When my sister and I arrived, however, my stepfather announced he was going to watch the start of the Chicago Bears game instead. I told him that we needed him at the conversation, and he was irked that we couldn’t wait for half-time.
With the Bears game on in the background, I prefaced the conversation with my mom’s injury and why we needed to know about their estate plans. My mom was much more forthcoming than I had expected. She let us know upfront what they had in their will, and I asked if they were comfortable with its current state, which they were, and who was the executor, me.
I then went through my list of questions about the four key estate planning documents people need to have: durable power of attorney, financial power of attorney, healthcare proxy, and pre-need guardian. They have one out of those four, so it’s going to be my job to get them the rest. Mom also said they have a living will, and that along with the standard will, both are in a safe-deposit box at their bank.
Mom pays bills online, and showed me where she keeps her passwords. We talked about adding me or my sister to their checking account in case they need our help to pay bills. I asked if she could write out a list of medications they take, and compile a contact list of important people: doctors, financial advisor, attorney, neighbors, and close friends. Meanwhile, I’m going to create a document so she can list their assets and where they are located, such as the title to their home and car, the names of their bank and IRA accounts with the last four digits only.
Not all of the conversation went smoothly. My mom answered most of our questions, but my stepfather was distracted when I interrupted the Bears game to ask specific questions about what he wanted. For example, he said he had no interest in having a memorial, and when I asked where either of them wanted to live if they could no longer live independently, he said to put him in a nursing home. He had zero interest in visiting one now to get an idea of what he might like.
“Just pick one,” he said.
“What if I put you in a van down by the river?” I heard myself ask.
Eyes still on the TV, my stepfather replied: “Fine. Just give me a fishing pole.”
As I wrapped up my questioning, my mom turned the tables and asked: “Well, what about you? Have you done this?”
I told her that my husband and I had already, but my sister admitted she and her husband hadn’t. And that was one of the reasons why my sister wanted to have this conversation, so she knows what to do.
My mom said she felt fine about our meeting, and my sister and I feel more confident about what our parents have done and what they want. We’ll need other conversations, and I will have to help them with documenting everything we talked about, but we have a road map.
From my experience, here are a few Dos and Don’ts for talking estate planning:
- Expect to have more than one discussion. The seeds for my talk started 10 years ago and will continue. It may take a few meetings to make progress, especially for families with large estates or contentious circumstances.
- When possible, involve siblings so everyone is on the same page. This may be hard in families where some members are estranged, but it’s worth doing when it can be done.
- Prepare. We set a specific date with a purpose. The list of written questions gave our discussion a framework and removed some of the emotion from the topic. It became a productive meeting, not just a gabfest.
- Be gentle. This will be a hard conversation for you, and an even harder one for your parents. No one likes to talk about these subjects and family dynamics are complex.
- Bring up money. Older generations may feel defensive and worry that you only care about dollar signs. Just ask for a list of where the assets are, and if they are financial accounts, the account’s last four digits.
- Be spontaneous. Don’t bring up the subject after Thanksgiving dinner when everyone’s had a glass of wine.
- Meet in public. Meet at their place or yours, wherever you can have privacy and feel relaxed. Whether you tell your parents the details of the meeting ahead of time will depend on how you think they will react.
- Have other distractions. Had I known about the football game, I would have picked a different day so I’d have my stepfather’s full attention. Leave grandkids at home, too.
With the hard part over, we could relax and leave my stepfather to the Monsters of the Midway. I asked my mom why she felt more comfortable talking now about estate planning than 10 years ago. She replied bluntly: “We’re older now.”
Then she gave me an answer that surprised me. She’s an avid news consumer, but doesn’t follow pop culture. She told me: “Prince died without a will. And they’re still going through his things. I didn’t want that for you.”
This article was originally published in Barron’s on November 21, 2022, and written by Debbie Carlson.
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