The holidays are a special time of joy and remembrance. It’s a time when families gather together to celebrate the accomplishments of the past year, look forward to what is to come, and rejoice in the universal connections that tie all humanity together … like the fact that we are all going to die.
Maybe that last one isn’t common talk around the holiday table, but it should be. It can be hard to get the entire family together, so while they are gathered, it is the perfect time for heart-to-heart conversations. One conversation needs to be whether or not your parents, grandparents, or adult-age children have made the necessary plans for their end-of-life care.
The odds are that they have not.
Only four in every 10 adults have a formal last will and testament in place. That’s according to a recent survey from Caring.com, which found that only 42 percent of U.S. adults have documents in place detailing wishes for their end of life care. For those with children under the age of 18, the figure is even lower, with just 36 percent having end-of-life documentation.
“It is a difficult conversation to have, but I’ve found when folks come into our office, it comes down to finding areas that people might be okay thinking about, and then helping them take that conversation a level deeper,” said Catherine Hammond, attorney at the Hammond Law Group, which practices only estate planning and elder law.
“When they come into our office for a consultation with an attorney, we start by just asking them about their family and their assets and goals, and then eventually we can go a little deeper into their real concerns. There’s nothing we can do to help somebody be ready to talk about disability and death, but once they’re ready to face their mortality and come into our office, we gently lead them through a discussion of the things that are most important to them, like their loved ones. And that means we need to discuss hard decisions our loved ones might need to make around end-of-life care.”
If you need help discussing your end of life wishes or needs, the Hammond Law Group can help. Click here to attend our next workshop where you’ll learn about the important legal documents that can help you and your loved ones.
The Caring.com survey also looked at reasons why folks did not have any estate planning documents in place. Of the respondents without estate documents, 47 percent said, “I just haven’t gotten around to it.”
Just starting the conversation can be difficult. Experts recommend to:
- Approach the conversation like a business meeting.
- Plan ahead; don’t just spring this discussion on unsuspecting family members.
- If someone is uncomfortable with the topic, address what is bothering him or her and why it is important to overcome their hesitancy, even temporarily.
- Hire an attorney to help with legal necessities.
“Procrastination is definitely a barrier to overcome when it comes to estate planning,” said Jessica Showers, attorney at the Hammond Law Group. “I recommend that families have the conversation in an open setting, like around the dining room table. I always recommend cooking a good meal having some good food. However, if that setting won’t work, there are professionals – maybe your estate attorney or they may know someone – who can sit down and help you mediate that conversation with your family.”
An estate attorney can help guide the conversation to hone in on you and your family’s specific needs. It all starts with getting the right documents in place, which, many people are surprised to discover, may not be a will.
“Most people believe that having a will enables them to avoid the court-run probate process, but that actually is not the case,” said Showers. “Having a will basically guarantees probate, because with a will you don’t change title of your assets, everything is still in your name. The will is extremely helpful because now your wishes are known, but it is still going to guarantee probate.
“People who want to avoid probate need to establish a revocable living trust. That means you can amend the trust while you are still living, which is a big reason why we recommend those trusts, because people’s lives change and you want a plan to grow and evolve with you.”
Preparing for the Talk
Estate planning goes beyond establishing a will or revocable living trust once you have assets. There are actually three documents Catherine Hammond believes everybody should have in place once they turn 18.
“These documents are essential for providing peace of mind for your family,” said Hammond, “and they are easy to prepare.”
- Healthcare Power of Attorney – assigns someone of your choosing to make healthcare decisions in the event you are unable to do so
- Living Will – expresses your wishes regarding end-of-life decisions in the event you have a non-reversible, terminal condition
- Universal HIPAA Release – enables other people to talk to doctors if you are in the hospital and unable to give permission yourself
“A universal HIPAA release is a document that everyone needs and many people don’t know they need it,” said Hammond. “Without it, hospital employees cannot even tell you if your spouse or parent is in the hospital, much less discuss their medical condition with you.”
Working with an estate attorney can also help mediate potential conflicts that can arise around death and disability. Sometimes, one child may not understand why a sibling was chosen as executor and not them. Or, if you have a family that frequently disagrees, having an open discussion with an attorney can help avoid later disputes.
“What we do is solve family problems before they happen,” said Hammond. “We do that with estate planning: planning around and for disability and death. We make sure people know how they are going to pay for long-term care if they need it. We ensure that their finances and their investments are in order so that they have something to pass on to their family.”