Making end-of-life decisions is challenging — and knowing how to navigate the conversation with family members is especially tricky. However difficult it may be, not communicating your wishes ahead of time may make things more challenging down the road.
If you’ve been putting off having this conversation, you’re not alone. According to one survey, 90% of people said that talking with their loved ones about end-of-life wishes is important, but only 27% had actually done so.
What you choose to share with your family could mean the difference between a smooth and easy estate settlement versus a contested and drawn-out process that leaves lasting scars between your loved ones.
Like most challenges, preparation is key, which is why we’ve created this guide to help the conversation be as productive as possible.
Consider asking for input ahead of time
One of the first things to consider is whether you want to gather input from your family before creating your estate plan. Doing so may help you know what to expect when it’s time to have the final wishes conversation and aid your overall decision-making process.
For example, you might want to leave a larger inheritance to a child who is struggling versus one who is more secure and established. Before finalizing this decision in your estate plan, you may feel more comfortable having a conversation with your children first. Or, you might be considering naming a friend as your executor but are unsure if they would agree to it. In both cases, talking to them ahead of time will help you start the estate planning process with confidence.
Whether you choose to include your loved ones in discussions before creating your estate plan is up to you. Doing so may help the process run more smoothly or have the opposite effect if one family member feels overlooked. It’s important to come to a decision you are comfortable with — even if it means not everyone will be happy.
Decide how much (or little) you want to share
How much or little you tell your family after creating your estate plan is entirely your call. You may want to have a family meeting once your estate plan is complete to discuss everything with your loved ones. Conversely, you may want to keep your wishes private until after you pass away.
It’s critical to share at least the basics with your loved ones, even if you just tell them about the plan's existence and nothing more. Keeping your family members in the dark could result in conflict over your estate after you pass away. For example, if your family can’t locate a will after you’re gone, they may assume you didn’t have one.
When you die without a will, it is known as dying “intestate,” and the court system will distribute your wealth according to your state's intestacy laws. This is where things can get ugly.
If your will is discovered after your estate has already been settled, your loved ones will have to fight it out in court, and it could take months, even years, to resolve everything.
If you want to keep the information you share to a minimum, that’s up to you. However, your family should at least know that an estate plan exists. Additionally, at least one person should know where to find your legal documents when you become incapacitated or pass away.
Don’t forget your medical-related wishes
Your will isn’t the only estate planning document to discuss with your family. It’s equally, if not more, important to speak to your loved ones about your wishes on your medical-related forms, such as your health care power of attorney and HIPAA authorization.
It’s essential to communicate to your health care agents how you would want them to exercise their discretion regarding your care and treatment. Life-sustaining decisions aren’t as important to discuss, since your wishes are outlined in your living will.
Instead, it’s crucial to discuss the type of medical treatment you would want in the event you are incapacitated due to an accident or injury and are unable to make your own decisions regarding your care.
Explain why you made your decisions
If you decide to have a conversation with your family regarding your estate plan, consider not simply relaying the facts, such as who the executors or trustees are and how the estate will be divided.
In our experience, it’s equally important to tell them why you made the decisions you did. Approaching the conversation this way may make it easier for those who might be disappointed because they were left out of your plan or didn’t receive what they expected.
Communicating why you made certain decisions may help your family members accept what you’ve done and prevent conflict among family members after you pass away.
Additionally, consider communicating anything particularly unique about your estate plan to prevent any questions about your intentions after you’re gone. A sound estate plan will cover everything, from the basics to the nitty-gritty. Don’t leave room for interpretation; otherwise, your family members may find themselves in an unnecessary legal battle.
You’ve spent a lifetime building a legacy to leave behind to your loved ones — you don’t want all of your hard work to be in vain. How and what you choose to communicate to your family about your estate is your call. However, it’s crucial to inform them of the existence of your plan and make sure they can locate it after you pass away.
Additionally, it’s good practice to determine how much (or little) you will share ahead of time and communicate why you made your decisions. The fewer surprises there are in the future, the less potential disruption there will be when it’s time to settle your estate.