Thanksgiving: A Good Time to Talk Estate Planning

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Usually, the rule at large gatherings of friends and family is you don’t talk about politics, religion, or personal finances. Yet Thanksgiving offers a great chance to get caught up with loved ones who make up your “family” however you define it. With family gathered together, you have a prime opportunity to discuss the future including how assets will be distributed after you pass away.

Really does anyone want to discuss estate planning at Thanksgiving? It’s traditionally a time to slow down and enjoy your family before the true holiday rush officially gets underway. We know estate planning can be a touchy subject-but don’t neglect it just because it is awkward.

Creating a thoughtful plan of succession generally benefits families. Records show it’s often neglected, and the majority of Americans do not yet have an estate-planning document, such as a will or living trust. But with $30 trillion in wealth set to change hands between Baby Boomers and their heirs over the next few decades, it’s essential that families get started. The best time is well before it’s an emergency and while the oldest members of the family are still in good physical or mental health. 

Between watching the football game, sleeping off your turkey dinner, or Black Friday shopping, you may want to pencil in time for an estate-planning talk. Here’s how to do it gracefully—and tactfully—this Thanksgiving.

Timing is Everything

Estate planning isn’t something that generally comes up in everyday conversation, much less at Thanksgiving dinner. You wouldn’t ask one of your kids to pass the rolls, then ask which one of them would like to inherit their great-grandmother’s silver flatware. Likewise, don’t question your parents about long-term care insurance if they’re in the middle of carving the turkey.

If you want to bring up estate planning over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, pick a moment when you and your family members can spend time together. Then find a calm, comfortable, and private environment. The goal is to make sure everyone is relaxed, with no distractions that could send the conversation off course.

One possible approach, especially if you’re in the parents’ home, is to talk about where papers are kept and records and things like computer passwords. Then steer the conversation to what kinds of plans the family needs to make together.

Stay Within Boundaries

Once you’ve coordinated a time and place for everyone to talk, establish some ground rules for the discussion. Each family member should write down their wishes, thoughts or questions, and discuss as a group.

Having a checklist of items to discuss can help keep the conversation on topic. See the example below:

  • Write a will to spell out how your assets will be divided when you pass away.
  • Establish a living trust, if you have a significant amount of assets, to insulate your heirs against estate taxes.
  • Decide who will act as your will’s executor or, if you establish a trust, your trustee.
  • Discuss how your children will handle a long-term care situation if needed, such as acting as caregivers or making arrangements for in-home care or assisted living.
  • Set up a financial power of attorney designations and draft a health care directive (adult children should also have these because emergencies don’t just strike seniors).

The goal is to make everyone at ease and create a framework for an ongoing dialogue that goes beyond the Thanksgiving holiday. A weekend gathering isn’t a time for final decisions, but you can make a checklist and outline the plans to complete it.

Parents may see their estate-planning needs change over time, if they acquire new assets, get rid of others, or experience major life changes, such as a divorce or the death of a spouse. An illness can also change one’s financial situation, so it’s wise not to set up expectations about how much, if anything, will be available to inherit. If one child in the family has chronic health issues or a disability, you might want to discuss whether special provisions need to be made for any heirs.

Talking about estate planning can be simple and straightforward if emotions don’t get in the way or personalities clash. A Thanksgiving estate-planning discussion can get the ball rolling. When you start moving forward, however, having an estate-planning attorney or a professional financial advisor involved can ease tensions if they arise. Even more critical, an estate-planning pro can help parents and children come together to develop appropriate solutions to short-term and long-range estate-planning needs.