Speak for Yourself, While You Can


Speak for Yourself, While You Can | Wall Street Journal | By Tom Lauricella

Parents, it's time to be an adult when it comes to talking to your kids about your late-in-life planning.

Many times the burden of managing a parent's deteriorating health or financial situation means an adult child has to step into their parent's shoes.

But parents often can accomplish more by stepping into their former role and taking the lead. Doing so can head off divisive—and costly—family feuds.

The primary task is providing guidance for the possibly difficult times ahead: communicating your wishes about health care and a funeral, information about things like finances, your will and what to do with the family home.

"I've seen situations where the closest of families were torn apart by fights over items, that if sold, would cost a fraction of the legal fees," says Philip Bouklas, a New York City attorney who specializes in estate planning.

There's usually a reluctance to have these conversations, and it stems from more than being forced to talk about death, or the unpleasantness of telling a child that he or she won't be getting the family silver. There are entrenched family dynamics at play.

"Part of it is the culture of the family," says Anthony Serra, an attorney in Pennington, N.J., whose practice includes serving as a mediator for family disputes over elder care. "If that parent hasn't discussed their problems with their children all along…it's going to require a change in the nature of the relationship," he says.

Some parents don't like to talk about money. If their finances are fragile, they may be embarrassed. Conversely, if they have a big nest egg, they may be concerned that a child would misuse it.

But such reticence can backfire, says Elizabeth Forgotson Goldberg, an elder-law attorney in Bethesda, Md. She has served as a court-appointed conservator, assigned to manage elderly persons' finances, and has seen cases where the person had assets that their families didn't know about.

"People will say, 'My mom gets $1,300 in Social Security, and that's it,' " says Ms. Goldberg. "But it turns out there are other assets nobody knew about that could have been used to take care of the person at home" instead of a nursing home. "As much as they don't want to tell their children about assets they have, it won't be used for their own care if nobody knows about it," she adds.

Hard-earned savings also shouldn't end up claimed by the state as abandoned.

The biggest financial asset at stake is often the parents' home. A parent may transfer the title to a child to help with long-term care planning.

But after the parents die, a home can become a source of friction among children, says Mr. Bouklas. There are endless variations: a child may be living in the house; one child wants to sell, while the others do not; there may be a fight over the purchase price.

To help avoid these problems, Mr. Bouklas has parents and children sit down, agree on how the home will be handled, then enter a family agreement before the deed is signed over.

The nightmare situation for many families is a court fight over a will. As unappealing as it sounds, parents should spell out to their kids their reasoning for how they are dividing their assets, along with their thinking for who will be the executor or have power of attorney.

"By having a dialogue, at least you have explained yourself, and [family members] aren't going to speculate, 'You didn't love me' or, 'You didn't trust me,' " Mr. Serra says.

Of course, that could involve breaking some bad news. "But the best you can do is at least attempt to have the discussion," Mr. Serra adds.

Often a parent wants to favor a child in a will who has acted as a caregiver. That can be addressed in a document called a caregiver agreement, which Mr. Serra says can also serve as a centerpiece for a family discussion on these tough issues.

Arline Kardasis, founder of Norwood, Mass.-based Elder Decisions, which specializes in family conflict resolution, says it's helpful for parents to have these talks with all the children at once, rather than one-on-one.

"Sometimes if they have individual conversations, they think they heard something different than a sibling did—and sometimes they did!" she says.

With everybody in the same room, Ms. Kardasis says, parents have a chance to say: "These are my intentions, these are the reasons…I have the absolute right to make these decisions, and I'm hoping it won't cause discord among you after I'm gone."

The ideal response from the children, Ms. Kardasis says: "We will honor that."

Published on February 25, 2013.