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Monday, July 16, 2012

Why is it so hard to talk to my parents about estate planning, and how do I overcome that? Part I

Some topics have unwritten values attached to them that we react to without consciously realizing it. For example, some life events are generally agreed upon as being good news for those who are involved, such as weddings, promotions at work, or winning the lottery. Other life events are generally agreed upon as being bad news, such as divorces and bankruptcies.

Unfortunately, almost all aspects of estate planning fall within the "bad news" category. It's almost impossible to characterize life events such as dying or becoming critically ill as anything else. Without even having to consciously understand or articulate the reasons, we know that talking about estate planning will involve talking about unpleasant subjects. This is the challenge you are facing when trying to get your parents to talk about estate planning.

Everyone agrees that it's hard to bring up a sensitive topic such as asking your parents to plan for their eventual passing away. It's even toughter to bring up planning for mental incapacity. In most families, talking about money is also taboo. Many people who fully understand the need for planning to be done still delay doing anything about it because they simply don't want to open up emotional or controversial subjects with family members.

If you're uncomfortable talking about death, particulary with beloved family members, you're certainly not alone. Avoidance is a very natural reaction to unpleasant topics. This is why in most conversations about estate planning you will not usually hear an individual say "when I die"; instead you'll hear the person say "when I pass away", "when my time is up", "when I'm gone", "when I kick the bucket" or most commonly "when something happens to me".

Our society has several euphemisms for dying, and for good reason. You don't want to frighten, sadden, or upset your listener, but you strongly suspect you will do so when you bring up certain topics. Euphemisms help to keep a little bit of distance between yourself and the idea of dying. This is certainly understandable; nobody wants to be the cause of tears or sleepless nights. If a family member is terminally ill or shows signs of dementia, the task of bringing up estate planning seems impossible. Take comfort in the fact that almost everyone feels the same way.

Added to the discomfort of the topic itself is the worry about setting off sensitive family dynamics. Almost every family has at least one or two individuals who have had disputes with relatives, or personalities who clash with others. Sometimes getting along with certain family member is a matter of delicate balance. If harmony has historically been hard to achieve in your family, it might seem to go against the grain to disturb it now by talking about difficult issues. In other words, it's just easier not to start a fight by bringing up a sensitive topic.

Often people think that talking about death and money in the same conversation is distasteful. They worry about looking greedy if they ask their parents if they've made a will. However, estate planning and incapacity planning are not just about money. They are also about looking after each other, protecting loved ones, making provision for minor children or grandchildren, and showing respect for the wishes of those doing the planning.

*Coming up in Part II: Overcoming the negative view of estate planning*

*This post was excerpted from my book "Estate Planning Through Family Meetings (Without Breaking up the Family)".

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