Planning your estate is a way to simplify life after your death (and should you become seriously ill) for family members. It outlines who gets and controls what, from the home to the ability to make medical decisions on your behalf.
Experts say it’s best to discuss these plans with children beforehand. However, it can get awkward—even if everyone in the room is a grown-up.
“Discussing estate plans with adult children can be challenging because of the emotional sensitivity involved in discussing issues related to mortality and inheritance,” says Dr. Arunesh Mishra, MD, a geriatric psychiatrist and the chair of psychiatry at Raritan Bay Medical Center in Perth Amboy, New Jersey.
These conversations can get particularly tense if one child is receiving a particular role, such as healthcare proxy, or if assets will be split unequally. The good news? Experts say it’s possible to have a civil conversation.
Stuck on where to start? A pair of experts share tips on how to speak with adult children about your estate plans with as few awkward moments as possible.
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Why It’s Important To Discuss Estate Plans With Adult Children
The conversation may be the last one you want to have, but Dr. Mishra stresses it’s an important one.
“This discussion promotes transparency, reduces the risk of conflicts and legal challenges later on, and helps ensure that your wishes are understood and respected,” Dr. Mishra explains.
The conversation can be educational for adult children, and benefit you at the same time.
“Knowing that your adult children are aware of your estate plans can give you peace of mind,” Dr. Mishra says.
How To Talk to Adult Children About Estate Plans, According to Family Therapists
1. Don’t delay the conversation
You may want to avoid the discussion like the plague, but Dr. Mishra recommends having it early.
“Although it is a matter of personal choice, it’s generally advisable to have these conversations sooner rather than later,” Dr. Mishra recommends.
Major life events, like the death of a spouse who was previously the sole heir and newly diagnosed serious health issues, generally prompt the discussion. However, you can have it before you even draw up the will.
2. Ask for their thoughts
You don’t have to have plans set on paper to get the conversation going about estate plans.
The first conversation does not have to be all-encompassing,” says Dr. Wayne Lee, Ph.D., a psychologist with Mindpath Health. “You can ask them to think about what role they may like to hold, how they plan to carry your legacy or what your wishes for them are.”
In fact, clearing the air with your heirs before signing paperwork can reduce tension.
“Having these conversations earlier in life can allow your children to carry less burden with unknowns if a smooth plan is in place and agreed upon,” Dr. Lee explains. “Additionally, there will be no surprises, and if the conversation is held earlier in life, your children can find comfort in knowing you made these decisions with a sound mind.”
Related: 11 Phrases To Respond to Guilt-Tripping and Why They Work, According to Psychologists
3. Keep it private and zero-proof
Estate planning conversations aren’t white tablecloth affairs.
“Since this conversation may become heated with intense emotions, it’s best not to do it publicly,” Dr. Lee explains.
Dr. Mishra says your home could be a safe space.
“It can provide a comfortable and familiar setting for all participants and may help create a relaxed atmosphere for open and honest discussions,” Dr. Mishra explains. “Virtual meetings can be an effective option, especially if your adult children live in different locations.”
Sometimes, a more neutral setting is best.
“If your family dynamics are complex and strained, holding the meeting in a neutral location or attorney’s office can help ensure that everyone feels on equal footing and minimize potential tensions,” Dr. Mishra suggests.
Regardless of where you hold it, Dr. Lee recommends skipping booze.
“It can inhibit our ability to logically respond and cause us to feel emotions more deeply,” Dr. Lee says.
4. Clearly explain roles
This part of the conversation can get really awkward, but experts recommend being clear about roles.
“Explain, in as much detail as possible, what roles you’re assigning to what child,” Dr. Lee suggests. “This will help each feel like they have a significant role toward the end of your life.”
For example, you might say, “John, I’d like you to be my power of attorney because you are level-headed and logical.”
“If a child is in the financial or medical field, assigning them roles tied to the power of attorney or beneficiary may be beneficial if they want that responsibility,” Dr. Lee says.
Dr. Mishra agrees, adding that using simple sentences instead of legal jargon is important. For instance, “I have chosen Mary to be my healthcare proxy because she is a nurse or has lived with me and has knowledge of my medical issues. This does not mean I do not love and trust you equally.”
5. Follow this sample agenda
Still feeling a bit stumped? Dr. Mishra suggests the following agenda:
- Explain the reason for and importance of the conversation.
- Provide an overview of current plans, like details about wills, trusts, beneficiaries, assets and liabilities (your lawyer can help you put these in simpler terms).
- Discuss asset distribution. “This can be the most contentious part under some circumstances, but be very clear about your wishes and any specific bequests or gifts,” Dr. Mishra says.
- Relay information about healthcare directives, like funeral and burial wishes, end-of-life care and medical decisions.
- Communicate roles, such as executor and power of attorney, with empathy. “This information can offend children who were not chosen for these roles, and this situation should be tactically handled by giving reasons for your choices,” Dr. Mishra explains.
Bottom line: This conversation may not be the favorite one you’ve ever had as a family. However, it’s important and doesn’t have to be awkward.
“These challenges can be overcome by involving all family members, creating a safe and non-judgmental environment for these conversations and seeking professional guidance from estate planners or attorneys if needed,” Dr. Mishra says.
- Dr. Arunesh Mishra, MD, geriatric psychiatrist and the chair of psychiatry at Raritan Bay Medical Center in Perth Amboy, New Jersey
- Dr. Wayne Lee, Ph.D., psychologist with Mindpath Health