Financial Tips

‘I Prepare Wills for a Living, and Here Are 4 Things I Wish Every Family Would Talk About in Times of Health’

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As a thing that most people try to avoid, death isn’t a common topic of conversation. After all, discussing it requires confronting its inherent inevitably—but avoiding discussions surrounding it doesn't just bring blissful ignorance, either. In fact, this tactic can leave your loved ones in the lurch when death does arrive. That’s why estate-planning attorneys suggest considering in advance how you'll discuss your plans for death with your family, and above all, making a point to do so.

Death comes along with an emotional and logistical cascade of concerns for those close to the person who passed. While working with a palliative-care professional or death doula once death becomes imminent can certainly help with the emotional side of things, creating an estate plan ahead of time mitigates stress related to the logistics. “This is why we always say every adult should have a will,” says estate-planning attorney Rosalyn Carothers, JD. “For one, that allows you to direct what happens to any of your assets, and two, you’re making it easier and less expensive for your family members to help, as you’d have seen fit.”

“If you indicate clearly [to family members], ‘Here is my plan,’ then everyone can get on the same page, and it’s harder for someone to feel like they’re getting cheated.” —Patrick Hicks, JD, general counsel at Trust & Will

But, because of the inherent sensitivity of a will—deciding who gets what and what goes where—creating one only gets you halfway to solid death preparations. Learning how to discuss your plans for death with loved ones is the other half, both so that they know exactly where to find all the relevant documents in the event of death, and also so that they can help ensure your wishes are carried out effectively, without confusion, disagreement, or unwelcome surprises. “If you indicate clearly, ‘Here is my plan,’ then everyone can get on the same page, and it’s harder for someone to feel like they’re getting cheated, so to speak, when push comes to shove,” says estate planning attorney Patrick Hicks, JD, general counsel at Trust & Will.

Below, estate-planning attorneys share the key elements of end-of-life planning to talk about explicitly with family members, so that everyone knows what to expect should the unexpected occur.

What to discuss with family about end-of-life issues, according to estate planning attorneys

1. End-of-life wishes

A handful of both pre- and post-death desires fit into this category—which covers what you’d like to happen in the event that you’re incapacitated or terminally ill (the details of which can be legalized in a living will) and how you’d like your body to be handled should you pass (like your preferences for burial or cremation, for instance). “You really want to let folks in your life know, ‘Hey, if I’m in this circumstance, do this or don’t do this,’ regarding life support, in particular, so that loved ones feel like they are intimately aware of what you would’ve wanted,” says Carothers.

Even if it’s all legally delineated in your estate plan, talking about these desires openly can spare the people in your life who survive you from some very difficult conversations, says Hicks. It’s also worth mentioning that, in the same conversation, you should tell loved ones exactly where they can find the documents detailing these wishes, so that there’s no need to search for them if and when the time comes.

2. Who will handle what when death nears

Once you start considering your plans for death, you’ll quickly run up against what Carothers calls the “who’s its” and the “what’s its.” This refers to "who" in your life is going to handle "what," logistically speaking, when you’re about to pass and afterward—which is another big source of potential death-related conflict that can often be avoided with a conversation.

The most contentious roles to consider are who you’ll appoint as your financial and health-care agents under your powers of attorney, or the person (or people) you’re choosing to handle your finances and taxes and your medical decisions, respectively, whenever you become unable to do so. “Sometimes, people don’t want to speak to their kids or siblings about this because they don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings,” says Carothers. “But, it’s better to let these loved ones know upfront who you’re choosing for what and why.” That way, there’s less chance of a dispute after the fact.

The same goes for clarifying whom you’ll be naming as the executor of your estate (once you have a will in place or while you're creating one). This is the person who will settle your accounts, manage your personal assets, and disseminate the right assets to the designated beneficiaries of your will after you pass. Talking about this with family members lets everyone know whom they should turn to for any will-related matters post-death.

3. People to call in the event of an accident

Chances are, you may not even know exactly who among a parent or sibling's friends or acquaintances you should contact directly should they become incapacitated or die. And if you do, it's even likelier that you don't have their contact info handy. “Nowadays, everything is just saved in everybody’s cell phones, but what happens if you lose a loved one’s phone in an accident or you just can’t unlock it?” says Carothers.

That’s why she suggests everyone keep a list of the few close friends whom they'd like to be contacted should something happen to them, along with their contact information, and inform loved ones where they can find it in the event of an accident. Also on that list should be the name and contact info of your accountant and homeowner’s insurance agent, if either or both applies, adds Carothers, since these are usually the most important people to reach in any situation where someone is nearing death.

4. Sentimental assets

Surprisingly, it’s often the sentimental pieces of property that tend to create the most tension among a decedent’s family members, says Hicks. “With valuable assets, a lot of the time, it gets quickly resolved, either according to the specific plan in place, or in a way where things get divided equally,” he says. “But it’s the things that don’t have a lot of economic value, but that have sentimental value which are typically not accounted for in a will, and then get fought over.”

That could mean a family photo album, an antique, a special piece of artwork, or any other kind of family heirloom that can’t just be cut up into parts and divided equally. “Not having a conversation upfront about who’s going to get which of these items often leads to disputes and disagreements,” Hicks says. Talking explicitly about sentimental pieces in advance can certainly get ahead of these potential arguments, though Carothers also suggests checking to see if your state allows you to file a memorandum along with your will that can include a written file of all these items, listing the person's name to whom each should go.

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