I’ve talked before about how to have critical conversations with your parents before there’s a crisis. But what if there is a crisis or an issue regarding your parents’ health and safety that needs to be addressed right away? Perhaps one of your parents or grandparents has been diagnosed with a serious illness, or you noticed some changes that concerned you when you were home for Thanksgiving. If you’re not sure whether your parents have their affairs in order, it may be time to have an estate planning intervention (really, a family meeting.)
I recently talked to Richard A. Gotterer, a senior wealth advisor with Calamos Wealth Management about how adult children can prepare for these important conversations with their parents or grandparents.
Understand the emotions
The first step, he says, is understanding that conversations about long-term care, healthcare advance planning, and estate plans can bring up strong emotions. “One of the first things you need to do is recognize that. Your approach to the conversation should acknowledge the fact that these could potentially be emotionally charged,” says Gotterer. He recommends taking a few steps prior to the estate planning conversation to ensure there’s a successful outcome.
Agree on the “problem”
When Gotterer runs a meeting with clients and their families, it’s set up as a meeting. When everybody comes together, there’s an approach, an agenda, and an expectation set in advance. While it’s different when family members get together, he still recommends some advance planning for the conversation. “There needs to be an understanding that number one, there is either a problem or the potential for a future problem [with the parents or grandparents.] Otherwise, you’re going to initiate a conversation and all the parties in the room may not be on the same page. And that’s not going to make for a successful conversation.”
For example, there may be a participant who doesn’t believe that that there is an issue. Or there may be unstated assumptions between adult children about how to support a parent financially if it becomes necessary. One way to get to on the same page ahead of the meeting is to call people before they travel in for the holiday. In order to get their perspective on the issues, you can start by sharing your observations or the questions you hope to get answered in the meeting.
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- Does your mom or dad have a will or trust?
- Have your parents designated someone to handle their health issues if they arise?
- Who will handle financial and property matters if your parents cannot?
- Do you know where important papers are located?
- Who are your parents’ advisors?
Follow your instincts on whether to talk to parents ahead of a meeting like this. “Whether to discuss it ahead of time [with parents] will depend on their willingness and their acknowledgment of a potential issue,” says Gotterer.
Make it relatable
When you’re ready to have the actual conversation, Gotterer suggests several ways to make the topic relatable. “A lot of times when families gather, you start just talking about family friends, neighbors, people that you grew up with. Inevitably there will be somebody who’s sick or passed away or someone who is dealing with a health care crisis. When those updates are getting shared with the family, use it as an open door to ask open-ended questions,” he recommends. You could ask ‘Who’s helping them make their decisions?’ if a friend or relative is experiencing a health crisis. As a follow-up, you could ask ‘Have you done any planning like that?’ to see how prepared they are (or aren’t) to deal with a similar situation.
Another option is to bring up something in the news. Ruth Bader Ginsburg falls in her office? Bring it up as a way to talk about health and safety at home. Aretha Franklin dies without a will and the headlines proclaim “estate issues loom”? Use it to start a conversation with your parents about how you might find (or help them create) their will or trust documents. Your dad went to the cardiologist last week? Ask him who he authorized to receive information about his care on the HIPAA release form he most likely signed.
I like to suggest people lead by example, and share their own plans. I used my employers’ legal assistance benefit to get my parents connected with an estate planning attorney — and then we all made our estate plans at the same time. This year, I told one of my brothers about the hybrid long-term care insurance plan I bought as a way to ask him about his own long-term care plans.
When in doubt, reach out
I also recommend that if you can’t get on the same page with your parents or siblings, don’t be shy about involving professionals to lead the conversation. One of your family’s existing advisors is likely to offer facilitation as a service to their clients, or you can hire an Aging Life Care Manager to guide the process.
Estate planning discussions can save you time and trouble in the event of an emergency. If your family is experiencing a crisis or facing a serious illness, it’s even more critical not to delay. Now that you know how…it’s time to start the conversation!