In 2019 the number of people older than 65 eclipsed the number of people younger than five for the first time. By 2050, 22 percent of the U.S. population will be older than 65. That’s a lot of people who will be entering the later stages of life over the next 30 years. If you have parents who are getting on in years, then perhaps you’ve thought a bit about what will happen when their health takes a dip or when they pass. Highly unpleasant though it is to ponder losing your parents, it’s an inevitable reality. Unfortunately, most people allow their dread over the prospect, fear of uncertainty about what will happen, or awkward or tense relationships with other family members prevent them from initiating a discussion about end-of-life plans. This is understandable — of course, the only thing that can make losing a parent or suddenly needing to care for a parent more life-altering and complicated is not having a plan in place to turn to for guidance when tragedy and chaos strike. So, even if your parents are fit as fiddles and likely have years in front of them, it’s worth having that conversation with them. Here’s why:
- Death becomes less of an unknown. Taking the time to discuss what the death of your parents will mean for their legacy, their estate, and your family makes death less mysterious. Although it’s not likely that talking about it and making plans will fully prepare you for the eventuality of death, it may help. Counterintuitive though it sounds, talking about death can potentially ease some of your fear of the unknown, especially if you take the time to address it while your parents are still alive.
- Planning takes care of many uncertainties. If you take the time to make plans with your parents, you are guaranteeing that they have a chance to talk about what they want on every issue ranging from long-term care plans (if their health deteriorates) to funeral arrangements. When the moment comes for your parents to move in with you or a sibling, to move into a long-term care facility, or for you to make funeral plans, there will still be much to do, but many of the particulars on the most important items will have been decided in advance, reducing some of the decision-making burden from your shoulders.
- Planning lets you make the best decisions financially. In discussing these things in advance, you and your family members can work through the financial realities of long-term care and death, what is suitable for your whole family’s budget, and what makes the most sense with respect to safeguarding your parents’ dignity, quality of life, and wishes. This may prove useful in keeping costs down as you can find opportunities for savings by talking about things in advance and because you won’t be making decisions from a purely emotional place, which is more likely to happen during periods of grief and stress.
If you’re thinking you do want to get the ball rolling (and we applaud your courage and pragmatism), here are a few pointers to get you moving in the right direction:
- Start the conversation. If your parents have never brought this up, then you’ll have to initiate this discussion. The first conversation will probably be the hardest or the strangest, if for no other reason than it’s a difficult subject to broach. That being said, it isn’t something you are likely going to fully cover in one sit-down, so don’t worry about making sure you hit every line item the first time you bring it up. Just focus on making the conversation a priority. You might be surprised to find that your parents are willing to engage. If your parents resent this conversation, assure them that this isn’t because you think their end is near or because you have your eyes greedily affixed to your inheritance. This is as much about making sure they age and reach the end of life with dignity as it is about helping you deal with everything smoothly as time passes and things change.
- Bring in relevant family members to the discussion. Don’t leave out any relevant family members like siblings. That will only create the possibility of resentment and the need to repeat conversations multiple times. Making sure everyone is on the same page and that everyone is present gives everyone an opportunity to be heard and for your family to make plans collaboratively.
- Don’t leave any questions unaddressed. These conversations aren’t the time to be shy. Try to address as many uncertainties as you can while you have the opportunity.
- Get in touch with an attorney. Working with an attorney does not mean that you are facing a crisis or that something is wrong. Sometimes attorneys are helpful simply because they can help you get the most out of your planning, can help you manage ugly spats with family members, and can make sure your plans are right for your family. They may think of things to ask your parents about what your parents want that you wouldn’t think to ask and your parents wouldn’t think to mention. You should think of a lawyer as an ally who can make things clearer and easier to navigate. There’s no one-size-fits-all plan that works for every family. The unique particulars of your family, its size, the size of your parents’ estate, their health, the circumstances of their deaths, and their wishes are all relevant factors in tailoring the documents that outline what will happen at the end of their lives. An attorney can help you understand your options so you and your parents can move forward, assured that you’ve done what you can to prepare so you can enjoy the rest of the time that you have left together.
- Revisit these conversations every so often. Once you’ve made plans and laid out all the details in a set of governing documents and made decisions with your parents and siblings about how things will go, be sure to revisit your plans every so often. We’re not suggesting that you have regular appointments on the calendar to discuss death. We just mean that things change all the time, and you want to check in when it’s appropriate and update your estate planning documents accordingly.