It takes guts to start – and sometimes to stick with – a tough conversation. We’re afraid of triggering anger or hurt. Or being misunderstood. But some conversations are necessary.
Let’s say I’m wondering whether Mom and Dad have a will. And who’s the Executor? And who is getting what? Here’s the parade of horribles that might be going through my head:
My parents might think I want them to hurry up and die.
They might think I’m greedy.
They might think I’m trying to curry favor over my sister to get more than she does.
They might think I’m trying to trying to control what they do with their own money, as if it’s already mine.
They might think it’s none of my business. And say so!
On the other hand, what if I’m the parent and I want to talk about my plans and last wishes? I hesitate to bring it up for fear the kids might think:
I have a secret fatal illness or am morbidly depressed.
I don’t want to defend my desire to leave a large gift to a charity I care deeply about. Or to help a friend’s child with college, or reward someone who has been kind to my family.
I may want to leave more to a child with greater needs than one who has a well-paying career, even though I love them equally. But I’m afraid that will cause bad feelings between the kids.
If I have a lot of money I don’t want to stifle their own initiative.
If I have a lot of debt they don’t know about, I may feel ashamed.
Here’s a suggestion for getting over this first blast of fear. Start with something easy. An adult child might say, “I’ve been thinking about making a will, and I realized I don’t know whether you have one.”
Or the parent might begin by mentioning an article they read or a remark a friend made about wills and trusts.
Start casually and see where the conversation leads. If you sense push-back, drop the topic and try again in a few weeks.
In healthy, loving families it’s good to be as transparent as your comfort level allows. Ideally, kids should have a good idea of their parents’ finances and last wishes and be committed to carrying them out. But, for some of the reasons mentioned – and many others, such as a family secret or a dominating in-law or an addicted family member – discretion may override complete transparency.
But there is a bottom line: Every mature adult should have a lawyer-drafted testamentary plan such as a will or trust. Parents should at least tell their children what it is, where it is, how to access it when needed, and the name of the executor or trustee (which may be a child, an attorney, or a trusted friend willing to accept the responsibility).
This is one conversation you really have to have.
Alden Lancaster says
This is really helpful, especially the kinds of automatic thoughts going through the parents or their child(res)’s minds.
I wonder whether you know of a site where actual wills’ inheritance choices are anonymously briefly described … ones where the will-making parents chose non-equal but “equitable” shares because there was a non-equal context between the adult children. Examples of inheritance choices for actual wills, given actual non-equal contexts, would be helpful for parents to see what is possible and is done, and inheriting children’s understanding the parents’ choice for their will. Also helpful, if they exist, would be stats or polls on how often parents choose to do what.
Non-equal context examples:
— differences in society’s compensation for their called professions;
— differences in which only one child started and is leading a unique, compelling, compassionate charity that the parents are extremely supportive of;
— one or most (but not all) of the children are in debt, (e.g. over 6-figure debt, not counting mortgages or college tuition);
— one child uniquely has enormous wealth (whether from earnings, investing in the stock market, marrying a spouse of enormous wealth, gambling, or even the lottery!)
— one child will soon be dying childless;
— one child died leaving two minor children and a former unmarried (versus re-married) spouse;
— and differences in which one of their own children was severely disabled from birth … or a child of theirs who is unmarried has a child who is severely disabled; … or, in my case in particular: one single childless child become severely disabled as an adult (unable to work … and (for all these disability examples: causing a great cost of medical and caregiving and other help);
— contexts (as in these above), and with different kinds of disabling diseases, in which the difference was the choice of or was caused by their child, … versus where their child clearly did not cause the context, … versus where one or both parents have family histor(ies) or genetic pre-disposition(s) or even strong genetic probabilit(ies) of the child’s resulting difference;
— [and there could be combinations of the above contexts …aaghh!]
Thank you again for THIS (“Tough Conversations”) being such a unique and extremely helpful resource!
Carolyn Parr says
Hi Alden, Because of confidentiality rules I don’t know of anywhere that you can find actual examples. But the examples you list pretty much cover the waterfront. Thanks for your kind comments.