Starting the Conversation

© 2014 Peter W. Johnson, Jr.

The topic of estate planning can be a touchy, even taboo subject. But discussing it openly can be an enriching experience, and can have a significant long-term positive impact on your family. Here are some gentle ways to begin to address this sensitive issue with family members.

When approaching family, it is important to speak in ways that convey your motives as respectful and genuine. It may take more than one conversation, so be patient.  It may also be useful to include other family members before or during the discussion, as not to raise concern about selfish motives. [A sibling may question your motives if you are setting up Mom and Dad’s will without their knowledge.]

1.     Be Honest. Sometimes the best icebreaker to an “off-limits” subject is to directly address how uncomfortable you are bringing it up, while emphasizing how important you think it is. “Dad, I know it’s not a normal topic of conversation, and it’s a bit uncomfortable for me, but I think it’s in the best interest of the whole family that we discuss this…”

2.     Share Your Personal Experience. Bring up the subject indirectly by sharing your own experience with estate planning: “Mom, I recently named Bob [husband] my durable health care and financial power of attorney. If something were to happen to me, he can make informed decisions that honor my intentions. Wouldn’t you like Dad to be prepared, too?” or “Dad, I just set up my trust and now my heirs won’t have to deal with excessive court costs or proceedings in the case of my passing, and it was easier than I thought.”

3.     Tell Loss Stories. Tell a story about a peer who did not set up a will or trust and describe how this negatively impacted their family, possibly resulting in excessive taxes and/or probate fees, or in the worst case, a fractured family. Peter has several stories he can share, several of them from his own, personal experience. There are also books that give first-hand examples of estate planning done wrong — and right. One of these is Don’t Worry About a Thing, Dear, by Helga Hayse.  Another is Best Intentions, by Colleen Barney and Victoria Collins. These books make great gifts:  “Mom, I just finished reading the most extraordinary book…”

4.     More Conversation Starters.

  • I was talking to a friend/our financial advisor/our estate attorney, and s/he mentioned….
  • I recently ran across this article…
  • What legacy would you like to leave behind, to your family and the rest of the world?
  • In the event something were to happen to you, we’d like to ensure that…
    • our family is honoring your wishes as you intended.
    • we can retrieve any important documents/passwords of yours.
    • someone you trust can make important decisions about your health and finances.

5.     Get Help. There are a number of reasons families often find it difficult to talk about estate planning and related topics. Fortunately, there are professionals who are trained to assist families in getting through the difficult conversations, as well as the legal and financial complexities involved. Here are two resources you should know about:

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