How to Talk to Your Parents About End-of-Life Issues

It’s never easy to discuss death and dying with your folks—but these essential conversations (plus strategies for starting them) will help give all of you some peace of mind.

Photo by Yelena Bryksenkova

You may have thought that the birds-and-bees lecture was the most awkward chat you would ever have with Mom and Dad. But now that you’re an adult, a few more uncomfortable conversations may be looming: the ones about your parents’ aging, end-of-life concerns, and all the accompanying financial considerations. It’s tempting for both parents and children to put off the Big Talks. But vital issues, like power of attorney and long-term-care insurance, have to be discussed. (After all, you don’t want your parents to be among the 55 percent of Americans who currently do not have a will, according to the online legal resource FindLaw. com.) For your parents’ wishes to be honored, they need to have the right financial and legal paperwork and plans in place, says Martin Sabel, an elder-care strategist in Houston. “Once you know what your parents want,” he says, “the process of growing old is easier on everyone.” Here are the five important questions adult children should ask their aging parents, along with strategies to make the Q. and A. more comfortable for all.

The Question: Do You Have a Will?

Why it’s important: A will is the future of anything that a person values—not only money and property but also pets and even token mementos. When someone dies without a will, her estate is divided in probate court, where a judge decides who gets the assets. “This can cost thousands of dollars and take months,” says Christina Lesher, a Houston-based elder-law attorney. “Even if the deceased told a loved one her wishes before she died, a verbal statement won’t hold up in court. The judge will base his ruling on laws and legal precedents of the state.”

How to bring it up: “I don’t want to upset you, but if something happened to you, I would want to know that your wishes were being honored. Do you have a will?”

How to start the process: Most people should meet with an attorney to have a will drawn up. It’s an easy process that shouldn’t take more than a couple of sessions, as long as you know who will be named as beneficiaries and designated as executor. Or, if you have a simple estate (no property, few or no investments), consider using DIY software from ($35 to $50) to create a legally binding will.