We should all have an ongoing conversation with our loved ones, especially the older ones, about their end-of-life plans.
Yeah right. We should, but we don’t.
Because clients dread bringing up the topic so much, some financial planners refer to it as “the talk.”
Thanksgiving gives us a great opportunity to start a simple, direct conversation. Recent research indicates that talking down to seniors actually might contribute to cognitive decline. It’s labeled “elderspeak.” So don’t do the goo-goo-ga-ga patronizing thing. The elderly aren’t babies.
How to bring it up
So how do you broach the subject? My own family's table has expanded and changed so much that the inexplicable has happened: Not everyone is a Packer fan anymore. Moving to Chicago might have something to do with it.
On Thanksgiving, in a half-time ceremony during the Packers-Bears game at Lambeau Field, Favre's now-retired Packers jersey is slated to be officially unveiled.
That's bound to generate conversation. Even Packer fans still feeling jilted by Favre remember how his dad died unexpectedly the day before one of the greatest games of the quarterback's career. Maybe you can use that as an opener.
“Did Irvin Favre have a will? Did Brett or someone else know where it was?" you might ask. "I think the answers to those questions must be yes. Brett couldn’t have thrown for 399 yards and four touchdown passes the day after Irvin’s death while thinking, 'Where’s the will?'”
What you want to know
You want to have information about several important things. I’m listing them in order of what I consider the most likely to be needed in a time of emergency. Ask your parents if they have...
- A health care power of attorney. This document indicates who will makes medical decisions on your behalf if you can't do it yourself.
- A will. Don’t ask who is named in it.
- A financial power of attorney, sometimes called a “durable power of attorney.” This is for the (temporary or permanent) time that you can’t handle your own finances.
- An advanced health care directive, sometimes called a “living will.” This articulates your wishes in handling the end of your life. Although everyone hates it, a lot of people don’t die how and when they want because they don’t have one of these.
- One place where we can find this stuff in case of an emergency. A lot of people feel better storing these documents in a safe deposit box. Personally, I think that makes it harder to get to when needed. However, the biggest issue is—where is it? It’s not about the merits of safe deposit boxes vs. file cabinets.
The correct answer to these questions isn’t always “yes.” Sometimes there are longer explanations.
The point of this conversation is to:
- Open the subject for discussion.
- Find out if your loved one has thought it through.
- Save you and other family members massive frustration if you need the documents in an emergency.
- Enable you to carry out your loved one's wishes.
The point of this conversation is not to:
- Find out what these documents say.
- Get something for yourself.
This might go well, and you might have more to talk about. Your family member may even interpret your starting "the talk" as a sign that you care.
Alternatively, you might get nowhere. Then, even the Bears fans at the table are going to be happy to talk about Brett Favre’s career.
- Non-satirical advice about planning the conversation: https://www.agingcare.com/Articles/communication-techniques-to-deal-with-elderly-parents-138454.htm
- A five-step caregiving plan: http://assets.aarp.org/www.aarp.org_/articles/foundation/aa66r2_care.pdf
- Advanced directives for all states: http://www.caringinfo.org/i4a/pages/index.cfm?pageid=3289
- Medical & financial powers of attorney: You can get medical POAs from your doctor, any local hospital, or your state government's website. For a financial or durable power of attorney, also check your state government's website.
Bridget Sullivan Mermel helps clients throughout the country with her comprehensive fee-only financial planning firm based in Chicago. She’s the author of the upcoming book More Money, More Meaning. Both a certified public accountant and a certified financial planner, she specializes in helping clients lower their tax burden with tax-smart investing.