By William B. Howell
Communication between parents and children (and between children and parents) seems to become more difficult as both age and as the issues get more sensitive in regards to disability and death. The frequent result is that a parent may actually pass away with the children, who are to take over and be in charge, not having a clue as to whether or not there is even a Will or any other documents in place. In the event of incapacity during life, the same children may not know whether or not their parent has a Power of Attorney or an Advance Health-Care Directive because of a lack of communication.
The initial thought might be that it is the responsibility of the parent to communicate with the child, and out of respect for the superior position of the parent—as perceived by the child—it is not unusual for the child to not make any move toward having that conversation or finding out those details. There is always the thought that “my father will tell me when he is ready.” Unfortunately, the end sometimes comes or the need for the documents sometimes occurs without that conversation having taken place.
It is incumbent upon the child to ask the aging parent what has been taken care of. It is equally the responsibility of the parent to advise the adult child of what has been done, the location of the documents and details of what will need to be accomplished but not necessarily who gets what and under what circumstances.
Clients frequently ask me “Should I allow my children to read my trust. My response is that you should allow your children to do that which you are comfortable with, but you may not want them to know the details of distribution, so you may want to ensure that information isn’t available to them. They will find that out at the appropriate time.
However, it is great comfort to the children to know that when the time comes, there are documents in place that will allow them to act in the best interests of the parent and with the least amount of complication, court involvement, delay, and expense.
“The Talk” is that conversation between parent and child (or child and parent) that describes, verifies, or suggests the documents that are in place or need to be in place in order to minimize the complication at a time of great turmoil and/or profound grief. Why leave your family unprepared? Why not put in place the documents they will need? Many people don’t know where do begin. Contact an estate-planning attorney, get books, or talk directly to the parent or child, depending upon your position, and make sure that when the time comes your family is prepared.
In the event that the needed documents are not in existence when they are needed or if they cannot be located, then the family will be forced to go to court to get the necessary authority, whether it is to take care of the parent or to have the power to manage assets and pay the bills, or both. This route is both expensive and time-consuming. It is much easier for the parent to give the needed authorizing documents now, while they are able, rather than having the court involved when there is no alternative. Putting a good plan in place is truly a loving thing to do. Have the Talk.
William B. Howell is a member of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and practices law in Ridgeland.