How to Do Estate Planning: Talking with Mom and Dad

By Angela Epley

Reconnecting with family over the holidays, especially if you live many miles away, is both beautiful and bittersweet. Some things stay the same, like getting to taste a beloved recipe handed down through the generations; but some things definitely change, like noticing that your parents’ hair has gotten a bit grayer since the last time you saw them.

Navigating the transition to an adult child can be challenging, but is ultimately an act of love — which is why it’s time to talk to Mom and Dad about the legacy they want to leave and how to do estate planning. “There may never be a good time to talk about estate planning, so now is as good as ever,” says CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ Professional and USAA advice director Robert Steen. 

Estate planning consists of all the tasks and paperwork needed to prepare for a person’s eventual, or unexpected, passing. On its face, this may appear to be a morbid undertaking — but it’s actually quite the opposite: Estate planning is an act of true love.

By removing doubt, confusion and uncertainty from a situation that will already be fraught with grief, you give surviving loved ones the gift of not needing to bear the burden of dealing with piles of paperwork or potential legal expenses. Even better, major disagreements among family members can be mitigated.

Many finance and legal experts have seen their share of family feuds flare up in the absence of estate planning. Whether you or your parents feel like you’re doing each other a kindness by avoiding this discussion, it’s critical for all involved to realize how silence on this topic does everyone a disservice.

Sometimes it will take multiple tries to facilitate the conversation. Try these tips to approach parents about their estate planning thoughts from a place of kindness, care and consideration. 

How to Do Estate Planning: Etiquette and Empathy

As you choose your words when talking to your aging parents about sensitive topics like their financial situation, a potential inheritance or major debt, evolving health care needs and other subjects that have to do with aging, remember these three: respect, consideration and honesty. Politeness goes a long way, but by deploying empathy, you’re in a better frame of mind to really listen and receive what your parents may have to say on a particular matter. Put yourself in their shoes: It’s challenging to think of end-of-life details, especially if there are multiple children in the picture whom they want to treat fairly.

By putting their feelings, needs and concerns before your own, you can assure your parents that you’re coming from a place of love — this may help them feel more open to discussing these details. 

How to Do Estate Planning: Be Specific

Speaking of details, it’s important to be specific when discussing estate planning with Mom and Dad. The whole point of talking through which assets go to whom, or who will make medical or financial decisions in the event of disability, is to eliminate any confusion, so this isn’t the time to be vague.

“It’s important to have a document that lists all assets, liabilities, key documents, where they are held and who has access to them in the event of disability or death,” Steen says.

In the absence of clear answers, people’s expectations might develop in a certain way, only to be emotionally dashed at an inopportune time. Instead, get details spelled out and in writing to prevent misunderstandings down the road.

How to Do Estate Planning: Bring in The Professionals

Sometimes, despite everyone’s best efforts, the conversation may go in circles or fail to materialize. Or perhaps procrastination played a part, and one or both parents may not be in the right mental or physical health to clearly outline their wishes for end-of-life care, dispersion of assets or other estate planning specifics. In these cases, it’s worth enlisting the help of a third-party professional who’s well-versed in these types of situations. Having an objective mediator can remove the temptation for any one family member to drive the conversations or create a seemingly unfair imbalance of power.

“Even with the best family dynamics, it usually doesn’t hurt to have a professional set of eyes and ears involved,” Steen says. Plus, a professional advisor may prompt your family to consider certain situations or specific paperwork you may haven’t even known about.

The best time to talk about estate planning with Mom and Dad is when everyone’s in good health and good spirits. But even if the stars haven’t perfectly aligned to make this possible, find a way to talk about this. You could save your loved ones a lot of heartache down the road

Need a conversation starter? Visit the USAA Estate Planning page to build a legacy to help protect your loved ones.


The preceding discussion is not tax, legal or estate planning advice. Consult with your tax, legal or estate planning professional regarding your specific situation. 

Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards, Inc. owns the certification marks CFP® and CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ in the United States, which it awards to individuals who successfully complete the CFP Board’s initial and ongoing certification requirements. 

USAA means United Services Automobile Association and its affiliates. Financial advice provided by USAA Financial Advisors, Inc. (FAI), a registered broker-dealer, USAA Investment Management Company (IMCO), a registered broker-dealer and investment adviser, and for insurance, USAA Financial Planning Services Insurance Agency, Inc. (known as USAA Financial Insurance Agency in California, License # OE36312). Investment products and services offered by IMCO and FAI.  Life insurance and annuities provided by USAA Life Insurance Co., San Antonio, TX, and in NY by USAA Life Insurance Co of New York, Highland falls, NY. Other life and health insurance from select companies offered through USAA Life General Agency, Inc. (known in CA (license #0782231) and in NY as USAA Health and Life Insurance Agency). Banking products offered by USAA Federal Savings Bank and USAA Savings Bank, both FDIC insured. Trust services provided by USAA Federal Savings Bank.


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