A Gift to My Parents: A Conversation About Their Wishes

In the flurry of gift giving over the holidays, my mother reminded me of a gift I recently gave to her that proved more enduring than many - the gift of peace of mind.

Not long ago, I called my parents and my three sisters and said that I'd like to have a meeting to discuss important decisions that needed to be made when life gets in the way of our plans. I had watched a friend whose father had recently passed away debate the settlement of her father's estate with her siblings. This friend was single and lived near her aging father, so she spent time with him on weekends, driving him in his Buick to the park or the grocery store, and providing some much needed companionship and logistical support. Her two siblings had their own families and lived farther away, so while they loved their father, their ability to spend time was him was more limited.

When the father passed away, his estate was split among the three children, but the car was left to the daughter who had driven him around and cared for him when he was no longer able to get around easily. My friend, who lived in the city and didn't own a car, appreciated the gift as a reminder of the wonderful memories she was able to share with her father in his later years.

Her siblings were not so understanding. They were upset by the uneven distribution of assets. I don't know how much the car was worth, but I can't imagine the aging vehicle was worth more than a few thousand dollars.

When I saw the turmoil that the car created for these three siblings, I resolved that I would not let some material item or wish of my parents get in the way of my sisters and me getting along and spending our holidays together.

So my parents, my sisters and I agreed to meet at my parent's home and bring a list of assets (accounts, deeds, insurance policies, etc.), liabilities (mortgages, key bills, etc.) and key documents (wills, healthcare proxies, etc.).

My intention was to make sure that if something happened to one of my parents or to my sisters someone else in the family would know how to carry out their wishes.

In opening the conversation, I said that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), has a phrase: "You don't want to be exchanging business cards when you are standing knee deep in water." I noted that we as a family don't want to be standing in the lobby of a hospital when someone we love has experienced a health event, trying to agree what we should do or who gets to make the decision. Let's decide now, with the input of everyone in the family, while the "weather is dry and sunny." Fortunately, my folks were very well prepared. They had wills and health care proxies, with copies at home and in another secure location. They had already appointed one of my sisters the executor of their will. This sister, who lives near my folks, also holds the healthcare proxy if one needed to be produced.

I entered the conversation hoping to discuss a process for dividing up the material possessions (like the car) so that no one was upset when one sibling got something more valuable than someone else. If my parents had preferences about where their material possessions went, we wanted to ensure that everyone knew about those preferences. I have sisters who live closer to my folks than I do and give them a lot of support. If my parents want to leave the car to one of my sisters as a "thanks for driving me to the doctor," then I should know about that wish and respect it!

What transpired was far more illuminating and immediate. The first thing my mother said was, "Well, I just want to be buried next to your father." My mother's family held a few burial plots in a nearby town, purchased by her father decades ago. Her parents were buried there and my mother could go visit her parent's grave with ease. My father's family had burial plots a town several hours away, where no one in the family had lived in a century. While there was "room in the inn" at that cemetery, visiting the grave of a loved one buried there constituted a journey, not a quick trip. We had jokingly said all along that the first one to go got to decide where they both went!

I was looking so far down the road, hoping that my sisters and I could agree upon who gets the aging car, that I almost missed a pressing concern my parents had.

My mother had reminded us, in her ever so gentle way, that when the inevitable happens, we will need to make a decision quickly. Will the first to pass away be buried upstate, in the country, or downstate, near the city? Why not make the decision now, when everyone is calm and safe, and everyone who might wish to have a say in the decision--particularly my parents-- can make their wishes known?

These conversations are never easy, but skipping them complicates matters for those left responsible when parents can't make important decisions. Take the burial plot question. At a very practical level, were one of my parents to pass away suddenly, I wouldn't have the first idea where to look for the deed to the cemetery plot. Of course my father knew exactly where the deeds were held, but it was as important for him to tell us where to find them, as it was for him to share where he and my mother wanted to be laid to rest.

When someone is seriously ill or passes away, family members should know their loved one's wishes, have financial documents or a healthcare proxy at hand, know about the cemetery plot--if there is one--and have the deed for it. And it's a mistake for anyone to think they have a handle on these matters or can pull things together in a pinch without a discussion.

The holidays can be an opportunity to have these talks--or at least a time to introduce the idea of having a conversation at a future date. (Don't spring it on your family over a big holiday dinner --"Pass the ham and your will, please.") Suggest, perhaps, a meeting or a conference call in the New Year. Many parents hope their kids will continue to celebrate holidays together after they are gone. Discussing these issues in advance can help make that happen.

Tips for getting the conversation with your parents started:
  • Choose a positive, comfortable environment while things are calm: Waiting until there is a crisis can make talking even more difficult because emotions are running high.
  • Be sincere: Make sure everyone understands the conversation is happening out of love and concern.
  • Stress the benefits of the conversation: Showing a worse-case scenario--feel free to borrow my "Buick story"--is one way to do this.

Once a date is set for a family talk, make an agenda for the topics that need to be covered and the documents to have on hand. Wills, trusts, beneficiary designations, power of attorney documents, healthcare proxy or a HIPAA release, are among those needed. It's good, too, to understand your parents' wishes for their home and their belongings--and for themselves. Sometimes families tap a neutral moderator to ask tough questions and keep the conversation on track.

The discussion may be uncomfortable at times, but it's time well spent for everyone.
After our family meeting, my mom confided her relief that we'd had such a candid talk. "Thank you for sharing your gift and expertise with us, John," she said and hugged me. She felt confident that my sisters and I would continue to look out for each other and we'd always be able to share holidays together.

Peace of mind can be a gift for everyone, really.

[Note: Some details have been modified to protect the identity of individuals.]

John Sweeney is executive vice president of Retirement and Investing Strategies at Fidelity Investments.

Views expressed are as of the date indicated and may change based on market and other conditions. Unless otherwise noted, the opinions provided are those of the speaker or author, as applicable, and not necessarily those of Fidelity Investments.

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