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"Mom, Dad... Where’s All the Money Hidden?"

How to talk to your parents about estate planning

Two speech bubbles talking about money
Jamie Chung / Trunk Archive

To my knowledge, my parents don’t have any of their estate planned. Or an “estate,” period. I dream that they are like the superheroes of my youthful imaginations and can never die. 

Regardless, I actually broached the topic with my mother during a recent phone call.

“Mom,” I asked. “Do you have a will?”

She paused, and I heard 30 seconds of laughter over the phone, followed by several minutes of reprimanding. “Are you putting me in a home?”

There are few things as skeevy as asking your parents about money, especially their money and what might happen to it after they're gone. My own mother was making me feel like a hungry crow, circling over her wilting corpus, just waiting for her to pass on so I could take a bite. 

But it’s a subject we all need to broach before it’s too late. When the time comes, you don’t want to be the son grieving for a dead parent and also wondering, “Crap, I wonder if they had a savings account somewhere.”

The first rule of parental financial planning: Never assume that your parents have done any planning. 

And don’t expect them to bring it up on their own, or to be entirely forthcoming if asked directly. The only thing less comfortable for your parents than addressing their own mortality is addressing their lack of financial savvy. The trick is to make that financial discussion feel like it was their idea.

Don’t come out too strong with a “We’re taking the car keys away for your own good” energy. Susan Zimmerman, a financial consultant and licensed marriage and family therapist, recommends easing into the subject by making it appear that you’re the one looking for financial guidance. Tell them about your worries about providing for your own family down the road. Ask if they have any advice from their own experience. 

The second rule of parental financial planning: Don’t leave anybody out

Family disagreements over inheritance, even if the dollar amount is minuscule, usually happen for one reason: Somebody feels left out. Not necessarily left out of the money or the will, but out of the conversation.

And it’s not just blood relatives who should be involved. When my sister-in-law, a lawyer and one of the smarter members of the clan, first brought up our parents’ estate, I initially balked. Life insurance? A will? I couldn’t stomach thinking about it. But as the first married “sibling,” she had the clarity and critical distance to consider the need for these sorts of conversations.

This is not a “too many cooks spoil the broth” situation. The more voices —  especially the people who have an actual stake in what happens to the money — the better the outcome. And not just in making sure nobody feels slighted. 

It doesn’t matter if your parents’ inheritance is in the millions or just a dusty storage closet filled with mementos; everyone in the family should have a say. 

Even if Mom and Dad don’t want to talk about it.