How to Successfully Talk with your Parents about their Estate Planning

I recently read the popular business self-help book, Crucial conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High and realized that its principles for dealing with difficult conversations are applicable not only to business conversations, but also to difficult conversations that may be required in well-functioning families. For example, how can adult children successfully talk with elderly parents about their wishes for health care, funeral arrangements and final disposition of their assets at death?

This conversation meets the three criteria of a crucial conversations because: (1) the stakes are high, (2) opinions may very and (3) emotions may run strong. There are three possible outcomes when a crucial conversation is presented: (1) avoidance, (2) enter into the conversation and handle it poorly, or (3) enter into the conversation and handle it well.

The key to handling a crucial conversation well is "dialogue" which the authors define as the free flow of meaning between two or more people. The best possible outcome will result when everyone feels it is safe to express their ideas, thoughts, feelings and opinions. To feel safe in a conversation one needs to know: (1) the other parties care about you (mutual respect) and (2) the other parties care about your best interests and goals (mutual purpose).

Now let's apply this thinking to the subject at hand. A conversation might begin as follows:

Child: Mom and Dad, you know I care for you (mutual respect) and I want your wishes to be fulfilled should you become ill and even at your death (mutual purpose). As a result, I am hoping we can have a candid conversation about what your wishes are and whether those wishes are adequately incorporated into an estate plan.

Possible responses may fall within a broad range such as:

Parent: Sure, let me put your concerns to rest. Here is my complete estate plan and let me know if you have any questions or concerns.

Parent: Thank you for your concern. I will make a priority of meeting with my attorney and getting my plan up-to-date.

Parent: Thanks, but it is none of your business.

Parent: You are greedy and manipulative!

If you find the conversation has not gone well, remember to stay focused on what you really want: a true dialogue focused on your parents' desires and how best to make sure those desires are actually fulfilled. Dialogue may take time and numerous attempts, but it will happen only when your parent feels safe. Circle back to establishing mutual respect and mutual purpose. When the topic is personal and sensitive the authors suggest restoring mutual purpose by showing your intentions are honorable. One method to clarify your intentions is to contrast your honorable intent by stating what it is not.

Child: I am not trying to influence your decisions or change your wishes. I am only trying to be sure your decisions and wishes are honored when the time comes.

Remember, these conversations may not be easy, but they are important. Also, remember that many parents worry about their adult children and wonder if their children have done their own estate planning to state their wishes and to protect their children's spouse(s) and children. So be prepared if they ask whether your estate plan is in order! 

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