Last summer, I was vacationing in Maine with my husband when my brother called to tell me our dad had died. It was utterly unexpected and devastating news.
A lawyer in our family advised that we gather as much information as we could about my dad’s estate (the assets and liabilities left by a person at death). To our surprise and dismay, we discovered that he didn’t have a will. Without a will, we had no idea what his final wishes were or who he wanted to take responsibility. The result was a very long, complicated and frustrating process of working with a lawyer and a county court to designate an “executor of the estate,” aka the person who has the legal authority to make decisions about how to manage the estate of a deceased person. We decided that the executor should be me because of my relatively flexible work-from-home schedule.
Ten months after my dad died, I was finally named executor. I’ve since been working my way through a very LONG and tedious list of to-dos to settle my dad’s affairs, including managing his bank and retirement accounts, filing his taxes, dealing with insurance, appraising his belongings and preparing his house for sale.
I’d never thought to ask my dad how he wanted his affairs managed, let alone if he had an official will. Two years (and counting) into managing my dad’s estate, I really wish I’d talked with him about making a plan. Without a will, this process has been more stressful, expensive and time-consuming than it needed to be.
But it doesn’t have to be this way! This situation is preventable, and I hope that you can avoid having a similar experience. If your parents* already have a will and you understand what, if anything, might be expected of you, awesome. If you know they don’t have a will or aren’t sure, read on for some tips on how to broach the topic.
- Don’t assume your parents have a will. My dad was incredibly organized and documented everything, so I was floored when we discovered he didn’t have a will. Our parents are human like us: they put off tasks they don’t want to do. It’s better to check with them than to assume.
- Be compassionate but firm about the importance of talking about their wishes. It’s understandable if your parents are reluctant to discuss this topic! Tell them you get that it’s uncomfortable and aren’t excited by the idea either, but that it’s really important. It will be easier and less emotional to discuss as a hypothetical scenario than it will when someone becomes ill or, worse, dies. Feel free to use my experience as a cautionary tale.
- Schedule a time to discuss. This will make it harder to put off the conversation. It also gives everyone time to prepare. Your parents may want to do some research and consult experts (e.g., lawyer, financial adviser, accountant). You, too, may find it helpful to do some research to help you brainstorm questions for your parents.
- Find out how your parents want to be interred and remembered. It really sucked to have to guess if my dad wanted to be buried in a casket or cremated, especially while dealing with the shock and pain of his death. If it feels like a lot to address this topic and your parents’ estate, consider having two separate conversations to break things up.
- Sync up with your siblings. If not everyone can be present for the discussion with your parents, make sure everyone gets caught up and understands the plan. Remind your parents that by spelling out their wishes in writing they’ll spare you and your siblings the potentially onerous, stressful and even legally fraught task of deciding who will be the executor and how to manage the estate.
- Talk about end-of-life care. Ask your parents what their wishes are and whether or not they’ve documented them. Only one-third of adults in the U.S. have an advance health care directive (aka living will, or medical directive), a legal document in which people indicate what should be done for their health if they are no longer able to make decisions for themselves because of illness or incapacity. AARP’s planning guide and the National Institute on Aging’s website are helpful resources, and there are lots of medical directive templates online.
- Get your parents to document their wishes. Your parents and at least one witness will need to sign their will to make it valid. FYI, different states have different requirements, including whether or not a will can be handwritten and how many witness signatures are needed.
If your parents say that estate planning can wait (“After all, we’re healthy!”), tell them that this is the best way to ensure their wishes are carried out as they choose. If they’re still not convinced, tell them to do it for your sake. While ultimately this is about them, it’s also inevitably about you because you and your family are the ones who will be stuck with the task of sorting out their affairs. Even with a will in place you’ll have work to do, but at least you can do it more confidently and efficiently than without one.
If you’re the one who’s reluctant to have a conversation about any of the above topics because you’re super busy and/or the thought of talking about your parents’ death bums you out, I feel you. But, I promise, your future self will thank you when you’re able to spend less time sorting out your parent’s estate and more time dealing with their passing, whatever that looks like for you.
*I’m using “parents” here as a catchall for anyone whose affairs you might be responsible for managing. Depending on your personal circumstances, this could be a parent, a grandparent, a sibling, etc.