I wrote an earlier column on , which focused more on the nuts and bolts and how-to of estate planning. In today’s column, I look at the emotional side of this subject, which can be a difficult one to approach for parents and their children.
Start the Conversation Early
Karen Calcagno, owner of Advantage Family Business Center where she advises families on these types of issues, says avoiding estate planning only leads to deeper problems.
“Even if there are few worldly goods to distribute,” she says, “not having the important conversations with your family can—and often does—create a legacy of broken relationships among the survivors.”
Calcagno teaches her clients that estate planning is not just about who gets what, but should also include discussion about elder health care. She stresses that it’s important to have the conversation before a family member’s passing is imminent and before a sudden decision about elder care (assisted care, etc.) is necessary. Families should also use this time to communicate and build relationships by sharing values and stories.
Who should initiate the discussion?
Calcagno says that, ideally, parents should begin the conversation when their children are young adults, which opens the door for future, more in-depth discussions.
Avoid Roadblocks to Communication
I asked Calcagno what are some common roadblocks to family members discussing estate planning.
“Fear, denial, lack of good information,” she says.
She also explains that most families have a “wild card” they must deal with, one that makes the discussion more difficult.
“That may be a person, a situation, an unexpected big change in their family situation,” she says. “These ‘wild cards’ add challenge to the prospect of an orderly transition of elder care, goods and leadership from one generation to the next.”
I was lucky with my mother and siblings (my father passed away several years ago). We didn’t have any “wild cards.” Everything went pretty smoothly—no jealousies, no fighting over possessions or money, and a straightforward conversation about my mother’s wishes for a memorial service.
She dealt with the arrangements at a funeral chapel, choosing a niche beneath a statue outdoors on the green, groomed grounds of the facility. She asked me, my brothers and sister if there was something in particular we’d like her to bequeath to us, and my sister, who’s an attorney, helped her with her will and trust. I’m named as the trustee and power of attorney since I’ve been the most involved in her financial and health issues.
But jealousy is an all-too-common human characteristic. I read stories all the time about siblings and other relatives taking each other to court over an estate or will.
Calcagno says that when parents encourage competition between their children, fighting over the estate is inevitable.
Finding Common Ground
So how can this fighting be avoided?
“Parents of adult children can mitigate this to some extent by making sure to acknowledge and appreciate each of their offspring,” Calcagno says. “Adult human beings continue to need their parent’s approval.”
She suggests that, before the parents’ passing, the siblings create a team in which they can find common ground and create a plan for the distribution of assets. This can build “cohesion in the family while making their choices of the family treasures.”
“This is a growing and healing activity that benefits all involved,” she says.
Communication, then, as in most aspects of our lives, is the key. Start the conversation now to avoid future problems, and keep it going—parents to children, sibling to sibling, generation to generation.
Resources for estate and elder care planning:
Karen Calcagno is located in Soquel.
Scotts Valley Senior Center can assist you with resources.
Bosso Williams law firm in Santa Cruz offers estate planning.
Allen & Allen is an estate planning law firm in Watsonville.