Discussing wills and durable powers of attorney with your parents can be somewhat scary for most people. I think there are a number of reasons for this.
First of all, it is admitting to yourself that your parents will not live forever and also will not be the strong, healthy caretakers of you that you grew up with, forever. Thinking about your "heroes" being bedridden, in a wheelchair, or hunched over in a nursing home can be a frightening image to us. We'd just rather not think about it, thank you very much.
Second, as much as you may not want to focus on impending ill-health or death, your parents may not want to think about those things as they relate to themselves, even more! After all, it's their own weakness and mortality you're forcing them to face.
Some parents will shush adult children who attempt to bring up the issue of wills, saying "Oh, now stop talking about my death. I'm not going anywhere for a long time." Other parents are extremely private about their estate plan and financial status and refuse to let the children have any access to this information. Some still harbor the superstitious fear that by signing a will, they are signing their own death sentence.
I have found that what can work best is the "We just did it" approach. The child says to his parent, "You know, Mom, Becky and I just had our wills updated, and our lawyer was great. It was such a relief to get our wills done, as well new powers of attorney. He also said the laws about medical powers of attorney and living wills changed recently, so it was a good idea for us to do those, too, while we were at it. He asked us if you and Dad had updated your wills, lately, and I had no idea. Anyway, I think he made a good point. I know it's difficult to talk about these things, but it's just so important. Have you and Dad updated your legal documents recently?"
Another approach is the "avoided disaster" story:
Son: "Too bad what happened to the Richardson kids."
Mom: "What are you talking about? What happened?"
Son: "Oh, you didn't hear?
Their parents died and left everything in a mess. They told me that if their parents had gone to a lawyer and gotten things all fixed up, they could've saved the family thousands of dollars in taxes and legal fees. I sure hope you guys have gotten your legal affairs in order..." etc.
The seminar approach: "You know, mom, I just attended this really great seminar, where the attorney who led it brought up a lot of things I haven't really thought about before. For example, he said that everyone should have at least four basic documents: a will or living trust, a durable power of attorney, a medical power of attorney, and a living will. It made me wonder if you guys have done that, too, since he said it can be very costly and stressful on the whole family if parents don't have their affairs in order...."
Sometimes the direct approach is best."Mom, this is difficult for me, but I've been thinking about you and Dad, and how much you guys have done for all of us over the years. I know this is hard to talk about, but have you guys written a will and kept it up to date?" [discussion]
"That's great, Mom. You know, it's almost just as important to have a really good durable power of attorney in place, too, so that if you become too weak to handle things, one of us can take over for you, sign your name, and so on." [discussion]
"I really appreciate you talking about this, Mom. Oh, one final thing. Our lawyer told us that having a medical power of attorney and living will is really important, otherwise the doctors will be forced to keep you on those tubes and machines for years, sometimes, like that Schiavo case that was in the news recently."
Mom: "I don't want to be on no tubes and machines; if it's my time to go, then let me go in peace!"
Son: "Well, I agree 100%, but without that little piece of paper there's nothing we could do to help you. What would you think about making an appointment to sit down with an attorney I know who specializes in these things?" Etc.
These are difficult conversations. I hope the above will assist you in having them with your parents!
K. Gabriel Heiser is an attorney with over 25 years experience in elder law and estate planning. Heiser is the author of “How to Protect Your Family's Assets from Devastating Nursing Home Costs: Medicaid Secrets,” an annually updated practical guide for the layperson. For more information about this book, visit Medicaid Secrets. Here's more info about powers of attorney.
Here’s an article about Durable Power Of Attorney Madicaid Considerations
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