How to Talk with Your Family About Estate Planning

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Do your parents have a Will or Health Care Proxy? Would you or your siblings know where to find your parents’ important estate planning documents should there be a death or sudden illness? As difficult as it may be, a family discussion should be held so everyone knows what to expect and what to do in the time of a crisis. The holidays or other family gatherings are the perfect time to get everyone in the loop about your parents’ estate plan.

No one wants to think about their parents becoming ill or dying. However, it is an inevitable part of life. Being prepared for a crisis and having a plan in place to deal with it will make a difficult time a bit easier. 

Gentreo founders Julie Fry and Mary Kate D’Souza offer solutions of how to talk with your family about estate planning.

Why Estate Planning?

“Because you care,” said Mary Kate. “You want to be able to protect what’s important to you, which is mainly your family and your loved ones. By having an estate plan in order, you protect your family, your loved ones, your assets, and your choices.”

An estate plan consists of a Will, Health Care Proxy, Power of Attorney, and potentially, a Revocable Living Trust. If you have pets, you should also consider adding a Pet Power of Attorney to your estate plan. Each of these legal documents spells out your wishes.

Mary Kate and Julie have personal experiences of dealing with families – including their own – when it comes to creating an estate plan.

Webinar: Talking To Your Family About Estate Planning And Your Affairs

If you don’t have an estate plan, your wishes and choices cannot be legally carried out. As an elder law and probate attorney, Mary Kate has assisted many families during times of crisis. 

“I’ve seen in the law practice what happens to families when they don’t prepare,” she said.

Mary Kate related how family members of a loved one who was in the hospital with a medical emergency had to seek court approval for guardianship to make healthcare decisions due to the lack of a Health Care Proxy – a legal document that gives a person of your choice authority to make healthcare decisions on your behalf if you cannot.

“They were with me in court to get emergency guardianship orders to make medical decisions instead of being with their loved ones and having their choices upheld,” she said. “By having an estate plan in order, you safeguard against these issues and make sure that when a crisis hits, you will be able to be with your loved one and have their choices upheld.”

On a personal note, Mary Kate lost her mother to Alzheimer’s Disease and her dad to cancer.

“I know about the issues that happen even when you do have your affairs in order and how it impacts your family,” she said.

Julie, who has 20 years of experience in eldercare, explained how overwhelming it was when she and her siblings sat down with an attorney to create their parents’ estate plan – the experience that prompted her to co-found Gentreo.

“They pulled out a book, sat us down, and asked us all these questions,” she said. “We thought, ‘How can the normal everyday person do this without a super expensive lawyer?’ That’s how Gentreo was born. We got started because we knew that our family is like almost every other family out there. It’s critically important to get estate planning done, but they don’t have the tools to do it themselves.”

Julie points out that having an estate plan in place now will pay off later. 

“If you make your decisions now, it saves your family tons of time, heartache, legal costs, and confusion,” she said. “There is enough strife during emergencies as is, so, being able to take this off your family’s plate is a huge act of love.”

Read More: Estate Planning 101: The Documents You Need & Why

Estate Planning Documents

Let’s breakdown each document:

1) Health Care Proxy – You appoint someone who you trust to make healthcare decisions for you if you cannot. This document also allows you to instruct what type of healthcare treatment you want. This includes end-of-life care, resuscitation, and artificial feeding. If you are an older person or have a terminal illness, you may have a different outlook as to what treatment you want versus if you were a younger, healthy person. 

Without this document, the court would decide what medical treatments you would receive regardless of your wishes. The Health Care Proxy also lets you nominate second and third choices of people to make decisions on your behalf if the initial person is not available. Gentreo provides a HIPPA release that controls what healthcare information you want released to people of your choice.

2) Power of Attorney — This gives you the ability to appoint a person to make financial decisions on your behalf. You can set limits as to the authority and length of time the Power of Attorney is in force. Remember, this is a person who will be handling your assets and finances, so your choice should be someone you completely trust.

3) Will – Regardless of how much or little you own; you should have a Will. With this document, you dictate what assets you want to distribute to the beneficiaries you choose when you pass. You choose a personal representative – an executor – to oversee the Will and carry out your final wishes.

A Will is critical if you have minor children. If something happens to you, the guardian you nominate in your Will would take care and custody of your children. You want to make sure you choose the people you want to raise your children, not a judge.

Without a Will in place, your state’s intestacy law determines how your estate is divided and whom receives what. In this case, someone you don’t want to receive anything could inherit part of your estate. This could lead to litigation and conflicts among family members, further burdening an already grief-stricken situation.

4) Revocable Living Trust — This differs from a Will since it is effective while you are alive. You can take assets out of your ownership and put it into the Trust. The Trust is managed by a Trustee. If you die or become incapacitated, the assets are distributed to the beneficiaries you choose in accordance with the terms you set. In order for the Trust to be effective, you must fund it. For example, this means you must deed your home into the Trust. In the case of a bank account, you must have the bank create a trust account. Just writing on a document that you are transferring an asset into a Trust is not binding.

Read More: Comparing a Will-Based Estate Plan and a Revocable Living Trust-Based Estate Plan

5) Pet Power of Attorney — Similar to a Health Care Proxy, this allows you to assign someone to care for your pet and gives your pet caregiver the authority to make decisions should you be unable to care for your pet, yourself. Let’s say you are out-of-state, and you left your pet in the care of a neighbor and your pet has a medical emergency. The Pet Power of attorney kicks in and allows the caregiver to make medical decisions on your behalf. You can set limits as to how much to spend on treatment, and how long the Pet Power of Attorney is valid.

6) Emergency Card — Gentreo provides a free Emergency Card that provides your healthcare treatment wishes, medical information, along with your name, and contact information. It helps let first responders quickly treat you and know whom to contact in an emergency.

Any person can create an estate plan. However, if a parent does not have the mental faculties due to say, dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease, you would need to have a court appoint you as guardian to make decisions.

man carving thanksgiving turkey while family looks on

Gather the Family

“Take advantage of the times we have together to get your affairs in order,” said Mary Kate. 

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has made it difficult for family get-togethers, thanks to technology like Zoom, you can still coordinate a family meeting, even though everyone is not physically sitting around the table.

Read More: Gentreo Guide: Talking To Your Family About Estate Planning During the Holidays

Preparing for The Family Meeting

You should establish an agenda, time, place, and person who will run the meeting prior to the gathering. Send emails to everyone who will be involved to help narrow the issues to be discussed so everyone knows what to talk about. Gather all pertinent information and think about what questions to ask.

“Preparing ahead of time what you want to discuss is an important piece of getting ready for the family meeting,” said Julie.

Some topics to consider:

  • What are your parents’ health care, long-term care, and end-of life wishes?
  • What happens to their home if they can no longer live there?
  • Who will manage their financial affairs if they cannot?
  • Who gets their assets?
  • How will the assets be distributed?
  • Where are the estate planning documents stored?
  • Who should have access to their documents?
  • Who should be the Will’s Executor?
  • Who will make their healthcare decisions?

If you and your siblings are meeting with your elderly parents, some childhood issues could come up.

“I recommend that before the meeting to think about what really needs to be done and don’t go down rabbit holes, and stay focused on what’s important,” said Mary Kate. “Topics should stay focused on the parents’ needs and not the children’s needs.”

Things to Keep in Mind During The Meeting

Keep in mind that family members with stronger personalities should not dominate the meeting.

“Everyone should have a voice in the discussion,” Mary Kate said. “In order for everyone to gather and be involved, it’s important for everyone to have the opportunity to be heard.”

The family meeting is not only a good time to discuss your parents’ estate planning, but also an opportunity to evaluate their physical capabilities.

“Keep an eye out to see if they can still manage on their own,” said Julie.

Check around the house to determine if it is accessible to meet their needs. Some modifications may be needed such as grab bars in the bathroom or a ramp to ease getting in and out of the house. Determine if they can still cook for themselves and have them take you for a ride in the car to check on their driving abilities.

family making lunch together in the kitchen

Storing Estate Planning Documents

When a crisis strikes, it is critical that you and other family members know where to quickly access your parents’ important documents. A central digital location – like the Gentreo Digital Family Vault – provides secure, instant, and easy access. 

Some family members may be spread around the country or live hours away. In the event of an emergency, everyone needs to know where and how to access estate planning documents. 

Having documents in non-digital storage can be a problem.

Julie’s parents, like many people, had their estate planning documents in a bank safe deposit box.

“I did not have authority to go into their safe deposit box,” she said. “In the event I needed to access their Will, there would be no way to get it.”

A friend of Julie’s told her how his father had his Will in a bag under his bed. 

Julie asked him how he was going to access that “because you’re 12 hours away?” 

The cloud storage offered with the Gentreo Digital Family Vault allows you to upload your documents into a single, secure location. You control who has access and what information can be obtained.

Update Your Plan As Life Changes

As your life and tax laws change, so should your estate plan. A marriage, divorce, having children, buying a new home, and acquiring other assets require changing your estate plan.

If you had legal documents created in the past, they may need to be updated. Gentreo can help you do that.

“We aren’t just a one and done document creation service,” said Julie. “We help you grow and grow your estate plan as your needs change.”

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