secret document photo“It’s none of your business,” is what my friend’s mother said when he asked to see her Will.   He was not only offended, he was furious!  And, as he confided to me, he was terrified by her secrecy.  What wasn’t she telling him?

If you’re dealing with aging parent issues, you’ve got plenty of company. We face many challenges helping our elderly moms and dads as their health declines. Choosing new living arrangements, figuring out their finances, and navigating with reluctant siblings are only some of the tough decisions facing us as our parents get into their 70s, 80s, and 90s.

One question to ask as soon as possible is whether they have something in writing, like a Will or a Trust. Unless you’re an only child (and even if you are an only child), your mom and dad need to make some important decisions about what happens after they die. I can say with 100% certainty that inheritance issues can divide a family. Why wouldn’t you encourage your parents to make some tough decisions while they still have the ability?

An easy way to approach the subject is to do some research in advance.  Ask your friends and colleagues for referrals to estate planning attorneys, and find out who offers a free initial consultation.  Then share that information with your mom and dad with the suggestion that if they’re uncomfortable with the topic and/or the expert, they’ve lost nothing except a bit of their time.

Assuming (hopefully) that getting your mom and dad to an estate planning attorney is the easy part, and maybe they already have their desires in writing, what I’m going to tell you next is VERY, VERY IMPORTANT.  Ask your parents to sit down with you and your siblings, to go over the terms of their estate plan.  There are many reasons why this conversation is vital, and you’re going to need some guidance as to what to do when the inevitable occurs.  For now, I’ve listed only five such reasons:

  1.   If your parents are organ donors, you’ll need to make the appropriate arrangements.
  2.   Do they want to be buried or cremated?   Which cemetery?  Where to scatter their ashes?
  3.   Who did your mom and dad choose to be their executor (and, perhaps, why)?
  4.   Having the contact information for their estate planning attorney is relevant so that you can discuss probate.
  5.   Talking about these matters calmly and before they become urgent may significantly avoid conflict later.

Ask anyone who’s lost a parent — it’s an emotional, stressful, and very difficult time.  There’s not too much anyone can do to help you with your grief and sadness.  However, attempting to honor last wishes and make major decisions at this emotional time can lead to serious and sometimes permanent family dysfunction. Especially when those last wishes and decisions have been kept a secret.

So, I encourage you to talk to your parents.  And then, encourage your parents to talk to you.