Talking to Your Aging Parents About Wills and Estate Planning

“So, mom and dad, thanks for having me over for dinner. I wanted to talk to you about a few things. To start things off, I want you to think about how you’re going to die someday, probably not long from now. And with that out of the way, let’s talk about money.”

“So, mom and dad, thanks for having me over for dinner. I wanted to talk to you about a few things. To start things off, I want you to think about how you’re going to die someday, probably not long from now. And with that out of the way, let’s talk about money.”
That’s…not a great way to have a conversation. In fact, that’s a conversation that no one wants to have. But although very few people would actually be so blunt, that’s the seeming subtext anytime you talk to your parents or other aging loved ones about wills and estate planning.

There’s a reason people are so reluctant to bring up these topics, and it has to do with obvious overlapping social niceties.

  • We don’t like talking about money
  • We don’t want to seem like we are greedy or grasping
  • We don’t want to think about our parents dying
  • We don’t want to remind our parents that they are going to die
  • We certainly don’t want them to think we’re already planning—or even hoping—for their deaths.

And although few parents would actually think that, the idea that you are acting like a stereotypical money-grubbing character is enough to prevent people from ever broaching what is, in fact, a deeply important subject that must be broached.
But despite the discomfort, it is very important to talk to your parents about their estate planning. And it is important for you to know that you can do so without being cringe-inducing or ghoulish, without seeming like you are already itemizing funeral costs against inheritance.
If you approach it with love, respect, and their best interests at heart, you can not only help them overcome a burden, but put their minds at ease as they enter a new stage of life. When you plan for the future, you can put the stress of this conversation in the past.

Why Your Parents Might Be Reluctant to Estate Plan

An older fellow I knew never wanted to write a will or plan his estate, despite the fact that he was a man of not-inconsiderable means. He always told me that it wasn’t time because he wasn’t ready to go yet.
As you can probably tell by the verb tense, he is no longer with us, and he left a genuinely terrible mess for his wife and kids to sort through. They’ve been tied up in different courts for years, and the strain has hurt their once-tight family.
This is a very dramatic scenario; most people don’t have the questionable blessings of wealth. But the major factor isn’t amounts. It’s that any amount of money can make people go slightly nuts, unfortunately, and people will go to court for years over even relatively small amounts of money.
Whatever your family situation, your parents possibly have the same reluctance to plan. They don’t want to plan for a few reasons.

  • They don’t want to think about dying. It might not be strictly logical, but it is clear that if you plan for what happens after you die, you accede to the reality of death. The flipside of that is that if you don’t plan, you don’t have to worry. Like I said, not strictly logical.
  • They don’t want to think about how to divide their holdings. Many people, especially in the Bay Area, have complicated estates and holdings. Investments, heirlooms, real estate: it’s complex. And going over it seems like a complicated undertaking, especially if you are already looking at the clock with a bit more urgency.
  • They don’t want conflict. Once you start planning your estate, it is easy to start imagining what happens next. Will Kevin and Meghan fight over jewelry? Does the better-off sibling need a full share? It’s hard, and it is the sort of hypothetical conflict that many try to avoid.

So there are solid (if not always sensical) reasons for your parents to avoid estate planning. But none of that reduces its actual importance.

The Why and How of Talking Your Parents About Their Will

The importance of talking about estate planning is pretty clear. The longer your parents go without dealing with it, the more time they spend potentially worrying about it, and the less time spent enjoying life. And worst-case scenario, the less time they have to ensure assets are distributed in a way that reflects their wishes and avoids conflict.
This is doubly true if, as often happens, one partner outlives the other. Then the other partner has to deal with the headaches of an unsettled estate or plan it all on their own. It isn’t easy. And you don’t want that to happen to both or either or your parents…or, for that matter, to you.
So it is best for everyone involved if you make sure your parents have everything in order, whether they’re managing their finances independently or with the help of specialized financial services for aging adults. And you can talk to them without asking for things. There are a lot of facets to this situation that you have to cover, but in every conversation, honesty and empathy should be present in equal proportions.
Here are a few issues which inevitably come up in estate planning:


Money is obviously the most common form of inheritance, often in cash or stocks or bonds. Make sure your parents have a clear grasp on all their investments and savings. It’s their money, and they should go into planning with a full accounting.
As we discussed in our last article, your parents don’t have to tell you what to expect. They can, but don’t ask them. Don’t pressure them. Remember that patience and honesty are the signs of the healthiest relationships. If your parents want to talk to you, they will.
This isn’t about finding out what you are getting, or if the roustabout brother is being cut out. It’s about helping your parents prepare. By just helping them and making sure that they are taking everything into account, you’ll be doing them a huge kindness.

Physical Assets

Now, this is where things can get more tricky. There might be a piece of jewelry that can’t be split up. Or, your parents may want to give you something that you just don’t want. The tangibility and non-fungible sentimentality of heirlooms and collections make them extremely difficult for estate planning, and I think it is ok to talk about these assets.
Again, be honest. If there is something you want, it is ok to speak your mind, as long as you let your parents know you aren’t trying to change their mind. But can actually be helpful to them to have a full accounting of who wants what, and who doesn’t, so that they can decide what to about their physical assets with all the needed information.
(Note: this can include property, but obviously that is much bigger, worth a lot more, and can often have sentimental value to many parties. It is the same sort of conversation, though.)

Their legacy wishes

This is where you can do perhaps the most significant kindness. I know many parents who want to start a cat shelter, or give to their religious institution, or build a playground in the nearby park, or start a mentoring program in the neighborhood from which they came. But they don’t want to make their kids unhappy.
This to me is a chance to do a great service. Talk to your parents about the kind of legacy donations or planned giving they wish to make. Help them feel comfortable with the idea. And approach it with an open heart, so you know where they are coming from.
It is very common to want to give back, and to leave a legacy of yourself, a plaque that people will read and appreciate, a scholarship bearing your name. Every situation is different, but it is rarely fair to try to get in the way of that.

Where is everything?

Finally, your conversation should ask where important financial items and documents are. Unexpected death, or just the gradual unmooring of dementia, could make these items disappear, locking out assets that could become very important. It’s one of the main reasons to have these conversations sooner rather than later: life can never, ever be predicted.
Some of these items include:

  • Insurance policies
  • Will or trust
  • Durable power of attorney documents
  • Medical directives (especially if one parent dies or suffers dementia)
  • Bond or stock certificates
  • Safety deposit key
  • Property deeds
  • Car titles
  • Pension information
  • Contact for parent’s financial advisor

Helping the Ones Who Helped You

The last one reminds me of why this is so important. A cousin of mine said he asked his mom for information on her financial advisor, and she replied that she didn’t have one. She hadn’t done any planning (despite having some means) and hadn’t even talked to anyone about how to do so.
That’s why you want to have these talks. Maybe your parents are very prepared. Maybe they haven’t started planning at all. Maybe they simply don’t want to or can’t. Either way, you are being a good and caring child by setting their minds to the task. 
It isn’t greedy. It isn’t callous. It certainly isn’t cruel. Talking to your parents about their wills and estate planning is an act of love and one that can make sure their last days—and, indeed. their legacies—aren’t clouded by paperwork and controversy. Helping them take these steps allows them to step more freely into the rest of their lives.
At Institute on Aging, our programs and services help older adults, their families, and caregivers explore aging together, through good times and bad, as an adventure and a journey. Contact us today to learn more.

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