How to Talk to Your Children About Your Estate

Talking with your children about disability and/or death can be a difficult task for most people. Parents spend the better part of their financial lives working, saving and planning only to end up avoiding proper communication and planning with their children on the topic of death. Parents often do not discuss their estate plans with adult children out of fear that this will only cause tension and improper incentives. But in my experience as an attorney and financial advisor, the most successful planning results come from good communication.

Let’s examine a few key elements to having good communication regarding estate planning.

Prepare

Good estate planning discussions begin with good financial planning discussions. While children are young, discuss important basic financial planning principles with them like saving for things you want to buy, managing debt properly, good cash flow and spending habits, appropriate risk-taking, and basic stock and bond investing.

It is never too late to have these discussions. If your children are already adults, have these discussions with them now. You can also discuss these principles with your grandchildren. Of course, you will always need to cater the discussion to the child’s or grandchild’s life stage and level of financial experience and responsibility, but good financial planning communication paves the way to good estate planning communication.

Plan

Your adult children need to know what to do if certain things happen. Explain to them that in the event of disability, you have documents such as a health care power of attorney, living will and durable power of attorney. Tell them where you have these documents stored, how they can get these documents activated, and who will be serving in these roles to make health care and financial decisions. Provide your adult children with copies of these documents for their records.

Do the same thing regarding your will and/or trust document and tell them who will be serving as executor or trustee. Provide your adult children with the names and contact information for your financial and estate advisors.

Inform

The most important part of communicating an estate plan to children is communicating your family legacy. Tell your children and grandchildren your story. Share with your children how you built up your estate, your spending habits, your work experience, your financial stewardship habits, the financial mistakes you made, your charitable giving priorities and, most importantly, your values regarding how to handle money.

Based on your adult children’s life stages, level of experience and maturity in handling their finances, share with them details on how assets will be distributed or held in trust upon your death. Explain your reasoning for the structure and if distributions will be equally or unequally distributed. Adult children are more likely to be accepting when they have heard the reasoning from you during life as opposed to wondering after your death why you planned your estate the way you did.

Not all adult children are in a place to be able to appropriately handle the information regarding your estate plan. If you are in a position where these conversations are too difficult to have during life with adult children or if you have a disabled or financially irresponsible child, then consider leaving a written statement of your family legacy story to include your values, hopes, fears and intent for what your estate plan provides to your children. This letter can be stored with your will or trust and read after death. This will ensure that you are able to share with them your values and the reasoning for your estate plan.

The importance of good communication in preparing, planning and informing your mature adult children of your estate plan far outweighs most fears that you may have that are preventing you from doing so. In the end, the more your adult children understand about how your plan is set up, who will be involved, how to access what they need, and your estate and financial values, the stronger the likelihood is that your planning goals will be fulfilled.

Roger A. James, Jr., JD, CTFA
Partner, Director of Trust

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