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Double Duty

The Talk No One Wants to Have as the Parent or the Kid 

Many of us in the Sandwich Generation – those of us sandwiched between raising our kids and navigating life with our aging parents, are now taking on responsibilities on both sides of the ‘bun.’  Our priority is to protect our kids, but who is protecting us as the kids?

by Colin Smith | Contributor


Regardless of whether we are the parent or the child, estate planning and finances tend to be extremely uncomfortable topics.  Modern twists make the discussions more difficult and downright painful.  We ask ourselves, “Why not just bury my head in the sand – after all, none of this is going to matter until I die, right?”

Wrong.  I hear certain comments over and over in my conference room:  “That will never happen in our family.”  “My kids would never do anything like that.”  “We get along great.” Maybe you do get along great – today.  Somebody might marry into the family at any generation and change the dynamic completely.  What if someone becomes an alcoholic or a drug addict?  A gambling problem?  A jealousy problem?  A single spark can go a long way.

When we plan our estate as parents, we are forced to make difficult choices, such as who will take care of our minor children.  Most people would rather have a root canal than think about such things; so we procrastinate.  In some cases, making the decisions and signing the documents are both easier than telling your children what the plan is.  It’s never easy for a child to broach the topic with a parent either.

Someone has to get this conversation started before it is too late.  Before broaching the topic, adult children should know what information they are seeking. After all, you need to know much more than whether or not a Will exists.  Are there powers of attorney or advanced heath care directives? Who can get Mom or Dad’s medical records?  How does it all work together?  What does their health insurance cover?  Do they have life insurance?  Have they made a list of every account they owe or collect money from?

Bringing trusted people into the conversation will also help.  Some of my clients bring their adult children to our meetings.  If everybody knows Mom and Dad’s wishes, and they were all part of the conversation, it stands to reason that chances of a misunderstanding are minimized.   By “misunderstanding,” I mean a difference of opinion on what Mom and Dad wanted or would have wanted.

The catalyst is usually when Mom or Dad gets Alzheimer’s, dementia, or has a stroke.  At that point, the person can no longer make decisions for themselves, and somebody else has to make financial and/or medical decisions for them.  The decision maker can be an attorney, guardian, or trustee.  (It’s worth noting:  given modern medicine, it stands to reason that most of us will become disabled before we die.)

The lengths people go to in the case of a misunderstanding are too exhaustive for me to list.  One person might try to restrict access to Mom or Dad.  They might try to get the parents to sign legal documents and act on them.  Theft.  Kidnapping.  Physical harm.  Fraud.  Lies.  All of these are usually for someone’s financial gain or for other selfish reasons.  They may even try to pull the plug on life support prematurely.  Rightly or wrongly, these actors justify their actions by telling themselves, “It’s what Mom or Dad would want.”  Either way, the result is the same: the friction and misunderstanding make family members haul each other into court to fight over the parents or their possessions.  The legal fees put a huge dent in the estate.  After that fight, the family is never the same again.

To prevent such a mess, have your estate done professionally.  Make decisions carefully.  Tell your lawyer of any family friction.  Be thorough.  Experienced lawyers can work around most of the land mines.  After your estate plan is complete, talk to your parents about theirs.  You just bought yourself the perfect opener: “We just had our estate plan done and feel so much better.  But I just have to ask…did you all ever do something like that?”

There is also a practical side:  when all of the documents are in place, sit down with each family member separately, and tell them what you decided and why.  You can even do so in front of the lawyer who drafted the plans.  If the children are clear on what you want, they should work with you when you need their help.  They also won’t be in the uncomfortable position of asking you about your plans after they have theirs done.

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