We Have to Talk About This: Discussing Death with Kids

“If I get hit by a bus” is the preamble I use before imparting to my kids some bit of information that I may not be here to tell them later. Although I am not given to gloomy thoughts about my future, I am occasionally reminded by how suddenly one can be knocked off an optimistic trajectory.
On a flight last Saturday night, during turbulence that made the trip feel more like a roller coaster than an airplane, my confidence was shaken along with the plane. By the time I got home, I decided I could no longer procrastinate and needed to talk to my family about the future. Discussing death, wills and estate plans with older kids is a crucial parenting responsibility. Here’s why and how to start the talk.

We have to talk about this now, talking with our adult children

Aren’t We Too Young For This?

Pew research reports that 63% of the 75 million baby boomers have at least one adult child. At 18, kids step onto the road toward adulthood, with college, work and the beginning of their own futures. Our relationship with our children changes at this juncture and we expect them to appreciate, possibly for the first time, adult topics regarding home, health, and finances. Acknowledging them as adults, rather than continuing to treat them as children, means trusting them with important family information. Further, while we discuss and reveal arrangements for our future, we model the responsible planning that they, someday, may remember and emulate.

Yes, We Have to Talk About This, Now

Experts agree about the value of involving our older children in the conversation, although they acknowledge it is a talk most of us would rather skip.  Lori R. Sackler, financial advisor and author of The M Word, discusses the topic of communicating with our adult kids.

She says the question she is most often asked by her clients is “What’s the best way to tell our grown children about estate plans without creating a family drama?” She cautions, “Families don’t do enough to prepare their heirs for the handoff. It’s like giving your 16- year old son the keys to your car without a driving lesson.”

In a Wall Street Journal article,  The Inheritance Conversation. Ugh. columnist Veronica Dagher, cautions that “For many parents, it is easier to talk to their children about sex than money.” She adds  “waiting too long to discuss the issue, or avoiding the conversation altogether, is a bad idea, financial advisors say. It can cause confusion, mistrust and leave heirs unprepared to manage the family’s wealth.”

Cautionary Tale

Personal finance reporter, Tara Siegel Bernard, wrote in The New York Times, The Talk You Didn’t Have With Your Parents Could Cost You, Bernard reported on the difficulties three adult siblings faced as they sorted through their 74-year old mother’s affairs after her sudden death due to a fall. Though they had earlier tried to speak with her about her plans and financial situation, she always changed the subject leaving them in the dark. Shortly after her death, the mortgage on the house went into default.  The siblings rummaged through boxes and file cabinets to locate important paperwork.  Who would have thought to look in a knitting bag where the auto insurance policy was found? Bernard writes “Had their mother been willing to talk more about her financial affairs, it would have saved them a lot of stress and frustration.”

When I read this story, I immediately thought of my 86-year old widowed mother. Last month we sat down to review her financial and household accounts.  While I have been busy fretting about my mom, though, I now wonder how devastated and confused our children would be if my husband and I were suddenly unable to communicate our own wishes and plans.  Giving them the names and numbers is a way to begin the conversation. Failing to prepare them and leaving them clueless about arrangements we have made would be a parenting mistake I wish to avoid. That bus could be heading my way.

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