Having the Conversation – Talking to Others About Legacy, Aging, and Dying

There’s something about money that makes people uncomfortable talking about it. Money is the last taboo subject in a society that reveals its innermost secrets, feelings, failings and dreams on talk shows, the Internet, and in tell-all books. A therapist friend in private practice recently said that people will openly discuss the most intimate details of their sex life, but when it comes to money, they say little because, “it is too personal.”

Aging, declining health and death are also difficult conversations to have, especially with loved ones. Most people do not like to think of their own demise, never mind that of a family member. In the end, money and death, two vitally important life issues, are the least discussed. As a result, proper planning does not take place, expectations are unmet, and ill-prepared families are left picking up the pieces.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Money…the prose of life…hardly spoken of in parlors without an apology, is in its effects and laws, as beautiful as roses.” But the reality is that we all carry beliefs about money deep within us. Much of that was gained from our experiences in childhood and through the situations in which we were raised. Money is such a powerful element of our sense of worth, it can be very hard to have candid conversations with family, advisors, and/or friends about getting older, making financial and health care decisions. But it must be done.

So how do we overcome the reluctance to speak about aging issues and money “in parlors without apology?” For most people you need three things:

1. The motivation to have the conversation in the first place;

2. The education to know what the conversation should be about; and

3. The topics to give your conversation focus;

First, why have the conversation at all? Well, like it or not, someday you may not be able to care for yourself without the help of your children, a professional long-term care giver or special facility. And, beyond the issues of failing health comes the ability to leave a legacy to your loved ones – whatever legacy that may be.

Whether the reasons – preparing your family as best you can to be the steward of your financial and legal life, or preparing yourself for our own mortality – you must have the conversation.

So how do you prepare? Simple. Get educated. In a recent focus group organized by the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, the most often-given reasons why people do not have the conversation about life and estate planning is lack of education about legal/financial issues, and fear of sounding foolish.

For many, estate planning and/or elder planning – using wills, trusts, advanced health care directives – is usually only done at the urging of our “regular” health, legal and financial advisors. A discussion with an estate planning/elder law attorney will give you a basic understanding of the issues involved, and place you on the path toward having a full conversation with your family. Be sure to ask for referrals from the other professionals in your life and do not be shy about interviewing two or three to find one you are comfortable with. Remember, it is your money and future at stake. Once armed with your full estate plan, you can better communicate your wishes and instructions to your loved ones and your loved ones can better understand their role in your plans. Among the many topics to consider discussing with them are:

  • Where your investments and the documents pertaining to them are stored;
  • That you have made your requirements clear to your investment, legal, and tax advisors;
  • What is in your will, who is the executor and why;
  • If there are complexities in your bequests, explain them in detail to avoid conflict among the beneficiaries and among those not included;
  • Your wishes for charitable and other legacy decisions;
  • How you want health care decisions made and that you have been clear about your wishes and gotten commitment from the person with your Health Care Proxy to follow your desires. Moreover that you talked to your doctor about your wishes;
  • The benefits of your health and long-term care insurance, and how you wish to be taken care of in case of debilitating illness;
  • Your funeral wishes or, better yet, that they are pre-planned so that your survivors do not have to make these decisions at a difficult time.

We do not deny that this conversation is going to be difficult and may not go smoothly at first. Nor is it meant to be the only one that you will have with your family about your wishes. But you must have it, not just without apology, but by fully embracing it and make it part of your family fabric. If done with the right motive, with a full understanding of why you are having the conversation in the first place, and with a list of topics to guide you, it will give you and your loved ones the peace of mind knowing you are on the right path toward a comprehensive estate and disability plan.