Whether you are talking with your spouse or partner, adult children or elderly parents, here are some conversation starters.
With adult children. While parents have no obligation to change an estate plan after hearing a child’s preferences, disclosing what they plan can help refine their approach. For example, maybe you are thinking of leaving one child a larger inheritance than the others because he has more children. By sharing these details with this child, you might learn that he would rather receive the same amount as his siblings, rather than face their wrath.
Above all, explaining the principles that have influenced your decision could make them easier for children to accept. For instance, don’t assume it’s obvious that you left the summer home to one child because he used it most; a parent’s death or even illness can rekindle sibling rivalries from decades earlier.
Of course, parents who share their thinking risk hostility from adult children who do not like what they hear. To reduce the possibility of a hostile audience, parents may talk to each child separately, rather than addressing them as a group. Afterward, ask each child, “What do you think?” You may be surprised to find that adult children have great ideas and interesting opinions.
With your parents. A trickier situation involves adult children who notice signs of a parent’s mental decline. Once parents become incompetent, they lack the legal capacity to make binding commitments, so it is important to sign estate-planning documents before that happens. But bringing up the matter may threaten a parent’s independence and desire for control.
One possibility is for the child to say: “I just did my own estate plan. Don’t you think you should update yours?” Another is to convey a story about a friend’s parent who did not take the necessary measures (for example, by not signing a durable power of attorney) and how much hardship was caused for those children.
Sometimes there is a fine line between being well meaning and protecting your own inheritance. For that reason, lawyers typically insist that they have an opportunity to meet with the parent separately, even if a child provides transportation to the office.
Their goal is to guard against the two most common grounds for contesting a will or trust. One is undue influence, which refers to efforts to coerce someone to sign estate-planning documents that favor one heir over others. Another is the argument that the client lacked capacity when signing the document.
Sure, it is easy to get frustrated with parents who do not put their affairs in order. But keep in mind that having the conversation requires them to confront their mortality. For both parents and children, that can be a gigantic step.