Plan for the Future

How to Talk to Your Family About Planning Your Estate

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The topic of estate planning can be stressful to broach with your lawyer, let alone with your spouse and family. Nobody wants to confront the subject of his or her own death or the death of a loved one. In addition to that discomfort, there is also a general concern around the privacy of your financial matters. However, these sensitive subjects can and should be addressed while you are still capable of making the most informed decisions possible about your estate.

Why discussing your estate with your family is critical

Estate planning is as much about taking care of your surviving family as it is about ensuring your final wishes are carried out properly. It is important to bear in mind that the family you leave behind will be grieving and may not be in an appropriate emotional state to make important decisions about your estate. Working through the initial discomfort now will save everyone from potential stress and strife later down the road.

By opening up a transparent dialogue with your spouse and trusted family members you are also finding out what level of responsibility they are comfortable with assuming after your death. For example, it is important to find out now whether or not the family members you wish to take responsibility for certain assets are comfortable with that task. You may find during this process that there are aspects of your estate that should be left in the hands of a professional. These are the things you want to find out now so you can create the best plan for your estate and your surviving family.

Your family will understand your wishes.

One of the most vital reasons to open up lines of communication about your estate is to ensure that your family knows exactly what your final wishes are regarding your estate. Family members may have differing ideas about what would honor your memory or how you would have wanted certain financial matters handled. By drawing up a clear and thorough plan for your estate, you are making your true wishes known and relieving your family from the stress of making future decisions on your behalf.

You can establish a family legacy.

A final, intangible benefit of involving your family in your estate planning is the establishment of your family’s legacy. Having this difficult conversation will help to firmly establish important family values and allow you to develop a common understanding of what is most important to you as a family. Not only will this help solidify your family’s legacy, it will also empower them and keep them from feeling helpless about the future.

How to start the conversation

Be mindful of the timing.

A family emergency or sudden crisis may bring the importance of estate planning to the forefront of your mind, but it may not be the best time to voice your concerns. Other family members may not be in a receptive emotional state during a crisis. Pick a time in the near future when everyone is relatively calm and stable instead.

Keep in mind that this subject will most likely catch your family off guard.

Your family may become emotional. Just remember that this is new and uncomfortable territory for them. Because emotions may run high the first time estate planning is brought up, consider choosing a private, comfortable setting. You know your family better than anyone, so trust your instinct on the appropriate time and place to begin this conversation.

Be sure that every family member you want involved in your estate is present for every part of the conversation.

You don’t want to have to rehash the same uncomfortable topics unnecessarily. Schedule set times that work for everyone so that no one is unprepared. Make sure they understand the importance of these talks for not only you, but for their own peace of mind in the future. Be sincere and transparent about what you hope to accomplish with these talks, and allow your family to voice their questions and concerns.

Tips for navigating difficult choices

Remove yourself emotionally from the situation.

While this can be a highly emotional topic to discuss, experts often recommend that after the initiation of the estate conversation, you remove yourself emotionally from the situation. It is critical for everyone involved in the process to understand this is ultimately about your true wishes, rather than what you think your family wants or needs.

Have an estate-planning professional present.

While it may be best to introduce the topic in a private, intimate setting, it is best for any remaining discussions to happen in the presence of an estate-planning professional. An attorney will be able to keep you and your family on track during these talks. They will also be able to take any emotional heat from your family off of you. Allowing a professional to outline exactly what responsibilities come with being designated as a proxy, a guardian or the executor of your will ensures that the right family member will be chosen for the job.

Let your attorney help you come up with appropriate answers to tough questions.

One way to simplify this process is to let your attorney help you come up with appropriate answers to tough, emotionally driven questions your family might ask during these talks. Let your attorney know what questions you are and are not comfortable fielding and he or she will gladly step in for you.

Experts have plenty of knowledge about the kinds of difficult questions you might be asked, so let them help you articulate your goals and reasons beforehand. You may also opt to let your estate planner answer some of the more complicated or technical questions. Practice your answers, and bring notes with you if you are concerned about becoming flustered during the talks.

Stay as organized as possible.

Planning your estate can become a complex undertaking. You can never be too prepared in this situation. Stay in constant contact with your attorney and ask as many questions as necessary. Keep a separate file with all of the necessary documentation, and make extra copies of both signed and unsigned documents for your records.

Remember that any official documents may need to be witnessed and/or notarized, so be sure to make arrangements to have your documents properly executed. Your attorney will be able to tell you what the legal requirements are in your state for executing estate planning documents.

Remember: Nothing is final until you say it’s final.

Keep in mind that estate planning is just that: planning. As time passes, your plans may shift. Because life is unpredictable, it is important for you and your family to understand that this plan is fluid.

It is equally important, however, to keep lines of communication open about decisions that have been updated or modified. You may even want to establish a regular schedule of updating everyone involved on the state of your affairs so nobody is left out of the loop accidentally. The entire point of your initial estate planning is to get everyone on the same page about your final wishes, so if your wishes change, your family needs to know as soon as possible.

Death and finances are almost always tense, uncomfortable topics for you and your loved ones to discuss. However, by opening up a transparent dialogue early on, you are saving your family from undue stress and tension in the future.

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