Parents can make things easier for themselves and their children with estate planning. Helping your parents get their estate plan in order might seem like a daunting task, but it’s necessary to protect them as they age. So how exactly you can help your parents plan ahead for the future, and how do you handle such an emotionally charged conversation?
How parents can plan ahead for themselves
Parents can make matters easier for themselves by creating the following estate planning documents.
General Durable Power of Attorney
A general power of attorney (GDPOA) allows your parent (the “principal”) to appoint someone they trust to complete financial transactions on their behalf. With a GDPOA in hand as your parents trusted designee (or “agent”), you will be able to easily manage their accounts, pay their bills, and manage their financial affairs.
Having a GDPOA in place prevents a situation where you need to petition the court to designate a legal guardian for the parent in the event they are no longer able to care for themselves due to an illness or disability.
Health care legal documents
Preparing your parents’ health care legal documents makes it easier for you to honor your parent’s wishes regarding their medical treatment. Your parent can name an agent or proxy to make health care decisions when they are unable to do so on their own. The essential health care legal documents include:
- Medical power of attorney: A medical or health care power of attorney allows your parent to name someone to make health-related decisions on their behalf if they become incapacitated.
- Living will: Similar to a medical power of attorney; a living will lets your parent name someone to make treatment decisions on their behalf. The difference is living wills provide instructions regarding life-sustaining treatments. For example, if your parent is in a coma with no chance of recovery, would they want to stay on life support?
- HIPAA authorization: A HIPAA form allows your parents to consent to the release of their medical records or treatment information so you can make informed medical decisions on their behalf. It’s important to have this form in place, so there is no delay in accessing this information when it’s most needed.
How parents can plan ahead for their children
Parents can make matters easier for their children by creating the following estate plan documents.
Last will and testament
A will is a legal document that allows your parents to express their final wishes for their assets and dependents (if they have minor or disabled children that require a guardian). To put it simply, it’s the document where your parents decide “who gets what.”
That might be you, someone else, or even a charitable organization. The language in a will can be as specific or broad as your parent chooses. For example, they might say, “I leave all of my assets to my children equally,” or they could specify which assets go to certain people.
Establishing and funding a revocable living trust can help parents and their children in a few key ways.
Benefits of trusts include:
- Avoids probate: Assets held within a trust are generally exempt from probate and kept out of the public record (unlike wills). Trusts are ideal for those who value privacy and would prefer their financial affairs are kept from prying eyes.
- Highly customizable: Trusts are one of the most customizable estate planning tools in existence. For example, you can add a HEMS provision that only allows your heirs to take distributions from the trust for health, education, maintenance, and support expenses.
- Greater control over the way your wealth is distributed: You can state in your trust your beneficiaries can only access their inheritances when they turn a certain age or upon completion of certain milestones (such as graduating college, getting married, etc.)
- Financial management: Trusts allow the trustee(s) to make distributions and pay bills on your behalf if needed (due to incapacitation).
It’s critical for your parents to name beneficiaries on assets that are able to avoid probate (non-probate assets). Your parents should designate beneficiaries on the following accounts:
- Retirement accounts (401ks, 403bs, IRAs, annuities, etc.)
- Bank accounts (checking, savings, money markets, etc.)
- Life insurance policies
Assigning a beneficiary on your accounts is simple (you only need the person’s name, date of birth, and social security number). You can typically name beneficiaries right from your online account portal. If you don’t name a beneficiary, your accounts will be included in your total estate and become subject to probate.
How to talk to parents about estate planning
It can be challenging to bring up end-of-life planning with your parents, as they might not be ready to have the conversation or, depending on family dynamics, might be skeptical of your intentions.
It’s crucial to approach the conversation with sensitivity and explain why it’s important to secure their future. If your parent becomes incapacitated (due to an illness, neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's, etc.) and doesn’t have an estate plan, you won’t have any say in their care. You wouldn’t want their treatment to be delayed or fall into the wrong hands. Assure them that you have their best interest at heart and want to help.
If your parent passes away without an estate plan, you won’t know how to carry out their final wishes and might not be able to locate all of their financial accounts, leading you on a wild goose chase all while trying to cope with their loss.