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How To Talk About Estate Planning with Your Family

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How To Talk About Estate Planning with Your Family

Estate planning can be a difficult topic to broach. After all, it’s a deeply personal conversation that touches upon finances, end of life discussions and family dynamics — a mix that could make just about anyone feel at least a little uncomfortable.

senior man and woman speaking to another man and woman while sitting at a table

Yet these are important conversations that can help ensure that your wishes — or those of your parents and loved ones — are addressed carefully and lovingly. It can be a way of helping to ensure your family’s legacy is protected, even if your finances are relatively modest.

In fact, that’s an incredibly important point to note: Estate planning really isn’t solely for the affluent! Many people can find value in preparing for the transfer of financial assets, real estate, heirlooms or businesses.

Whether you’re planning your own estate or helping a loved one plan theirs, the following tips can help you navigate those discussions. An added potential benefit? Peace of mind for everyone involved.

Consider consulting with professionals to prepare

Some estate conversations begin on the fly. Others happen only because a benefactor makes an effort to launch into them. If you have the luxury of time, it can be helpful to do a little legwork in advance.

Because even seemingly modest estates may intersect with a complex set of tax, property, legal and financial considerations, it can be helpful to work with experienced professionals (accountants, lawyers, financial planners and trust administrators) who understand the requirements specific to the state (or states) in which an estate will be distributed or managed. They also can help you develop a plan that reflects your unique goals, assets and family dynamics.

Plus, since they’ve dealt with many similar scenarios, estate planning pros can also help you put together a list of conversation starters and key topics.

Adopt a positive, long-term mindset

Experts say it’s easier to start your estate plans — or to talk with your elders about their plans — if you focus on the conversation’s potential positive impact. That’s why the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel suggests centering your conversation on the plan’s beneficiaries:1

“The word beneficiary does not have anything to do with death, disability, disease or disaster. It simply means that there is a benefit that someone is receiving from someone else.”

With that frame of mind, you might start by thinking about how your estate and assets could:

  • Help your children reach their educational or homeownership goals
  • Impact your grandchildren’s lives and well-being
  • Benefit a favorite nonprofit organization
  • Influence the future of a family-held company or property (e.g., succession planning)

Framing the conversation in a positive light has the potential to change the conversation’s tone.

Additionally, rather than approaching the conversation as a large — or lengthy — one-time discussion, it may be helpful to set up a series of conversations. Breaking the discussions down into smaller segments and time frames may make the topic seem less overwhelming while also giving everyone the time to think through the fine details.

Make the conversation relatable

It’s often easier to talk about challenging topics if they come up naturally in conversations.

For example, if you’re talking with your parents about their home renovations, you might ask if they’ve thought about what they want done with the house after they’re gone. If you’re the prospective benefactor in this situation, you might use your renovations to start speaking about your wishes to your adult beneficiaries.

Another opportunity to kickstart an estate planning talk may arise if your beneficiaries know someone who is settling an estate or undergoing a lengthy probate process or a lawsuit following a loved one’s death. By stating upfront your desire to spare your loved ones from estate-related entanglements — not to mention potentially minimizing estate taxes2, you may open the door to a meaningful chat within your own family.

Take breaks if anyone show signs of stress

In the midst of an intense conversation, participants may show obvious signs of stress or discomfort. Tempers of extroverts may flare, introverted people may grow very, very quiet or vice versa.

Rather than pushing through, take those signals as a cue for everyone to take a break, relax, reflect and perhaps do some independent research.

If an encounter is especially awkward, consider consulting with estate planning professionals before restarting the discussion.

Hopefully, a thoughtful pause will give everyone a chance to parse through difficult issues — and that can help you see your estate plan through rather than watching it stall out.

» Tip: If you find yourself in an estate-planning conversation, are asked to serve in the role of trustee or executor and are uncomfortable with the role, speak up so that your family member can explore other options.

Similarly, if you have significant assets and feel pressured by a family member to make estate planning decisions that run counter to your interests, goals or desires, be sure to set and hold firm boundaries. Note, too, that pressure exerted upon any elder by a relative or stranger to make financial or estate decisions against their will is, in fact, a form of financial exploitation.3 (Again, an estate planning professional can be of assistance if you find yourself navigating this type of situation.)

Plan to review your estate plans regularly

Once your estate plan is in place, work to keep it up to date. Changes in the law — like updates to the federal tax code or local property tax rates — may require you to update your existing estate planning documents.

Life events can also dictate updates to your estate plan, too. Changes in marital or retirement status, relocation, the arrival of children or grandchildren, a financial windfall (through business or inheritance) as well as disability or illness may prompt you to alter your plan.

It can be helpful to create a binder that pulls together all of your estate planning documents (including your will) and set a reminder on your desktop or smartphone calendar to review them annually.

Finally, make sure your accountant and, if relevant, trust administrator have current contact information for each of your beneficiaries. And be sure that the contact information for your executor or anyone designated to act on your behalf is correct and up to date.

The takeaway

While conversations about estate planning may feel daunting at first, they can prove productive — especially with proper planning and clear goals in mind. With time and patience, however, they can lead everyone to a deeper understanding of what the future holds and their roles in it.

Might a trust be part of your estate plan? Or are you an RBFCU member who is curious about estate planning and in need of referrals to our estate planning professional network?

Last updated April 2024.

Information in this article is general in nature and for your consideration, not as financial advice. Please contact your own financial professionals regarding your specific needs before taking any action based upon this information.

RBFCU Trust Services is a division of RBFCU Investments Group LLC. RBFCU Investments Group LLC is a wholly-owned subsidiary of RBFCU Services LLC. RBFCU Services LLC is affiliated with Randolph-Brooks Federal Credit Union (RBFCU). Trust services available through Members Trust Company, a federal thrift regulated by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

Trust and Investment products are not federally insured, are not obligations of or guaranteed by the credit union or any affiliated entity and involve investment risks, including the possible loss of principal.

This is for informational purposes only and is not intended to provide legal or tax advice regarding your situation. For legal or tax advice, please consult your attorney and/or accountant.

Sources

The following sources were last accessed April 2024.

1“Utilizing Positive Psychology in Your Estate Plan.” The American College of Trust and Estate Counsel, https://www.actec.org/estate-planning/utilizing-positive-psychology-in-your-estate-plan/.

2“7 Questions about Estate Planning.” Ameriprise.com, https://www.ameriprise.com/financial-goals-priorities/family-estate/estate-planning.

3“Vulnerable and Senior Investor Resource Guide.” Ameriprise.com, https://www.ameriprise.com/customer-service/resources-for-senior-investors-and-vulnerable-adults.

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