How To Talk to Your Parents About Their Estate Plan (Without Making It Awkward)

Klaus Tiedge / Getty Images/Blend Images

Klaus Tiedge / Getty Images/Blend Images

Do you expect your parents to leave you a financial legacy? Nearly half of working-age Americans assume that they will receive an inheritance that will support them later in life, according to a survey by the financial services company HSBC.

Finances: The Ultimate Financial Planning Guide: Do It Like the Pros in 6 Steps
See: 30 Money Moves That Could Set You Up for Life

Perhaps the bigger question, though, is how to even approach this topic with your parents. “No matter how you look at this, it’s such a sensitive issue,” said Gwen Morgan, author of the “What If … Workbook,” a guide that helps people give loved ones necessary information if anything happens to them.

Find Out: Retirees Confess What They Wish They’d Done With Their Money

You don’t want to appear greedy when asking your parents about their estate planning. But, you do need answers to certain questions to ensure that your parents’ financial wishes are carried out and there is a smooth transition of wealth and assets. Here’s how to approach this touchy subject and get the information you need.

Last updated: June 22, 2021

Make Your Money Work Better for You
yongyuan / iStock.com

How To Start the Conversation

The burning question on your mind might be how much money you’ll get in your inheritance from your parents. However, you shouldn’t ask how much you stand to inherit because the amount can change over your parents’ remaining lives, said Chris Blackmon, a certified public accountant (CPA) with wealth management firm Biggers Blackmon LLC. Plus, you don’t want your parents to mistake your question as a sense of entitlement, he said. Instead, you should start by asking your parents about whether they have an estate plan.

You can say, “I don’t want to know the numbers. I just want to be able to follow your instructions out of love,” said Saul Simon, a certified financial planner (CFP) and author of “Simon Says: Love Your Legacy.” It’s important that your parents know that you want to know what they want if something happens to them, he said.

Similar: Retirement Planning Steps You Aren’t Taking Now, But Should

skynesher / iStock.com

Have Resources Handy

A good way to start this conversation is to reference a resource, such as a book or an article you read about the importance of estate planning. You could share what you’ve learned or offer to let them read the resource themselves.

Some possible resources to use:

  • “Wills and Trusts Kit For Dummies” by Aaron Larson
  • “Get It Together: Organize Your Records So Your Family Won’t Have To” by Mellanie Cullen
  • “Family Wealth–Keeping It in the Family: How Family Members and Their Advisers Preserve Human, Intellectual, and Financial Assets for Generations” by James E. Hughes Jr.
  • “The Wall Street Journal Complete Estate-Planning Guidebook” by Rachel Emma Silverman
  • “You Only Die Once: A Guide to Estate Planning for You and Your Loved Ones” by Jeffrey Althaus
  • “Get Your Ducks in a Row: The Baby Boomers Guide to Estate Planning” by Harry S. Margolis

Read: Lessons in Estate Planning From Bob Dylan’s $300 Million Music Sale

Make Your Money Work Better for You

Do Your Own Estate Planning

Alternatively, or in addition to referencing sources, you could say that you’re doing your own estate planning so that there is no question about who gets what when you’re gone, then ask whether your parents have taken any similar steps. “You might even acknowledge how awkward and difficult this conversation is for you as you do not wish their demise but are just trying to figure things out,” said Ruth Nemzoff, an expert in family dynamics and author of the book “Don’t Bite Your Tongue.”  

A Daughter’s Story: The One Thing I Wish My Father Had Done

Drazen Zigic / Getty Images/iStockphoto

When To Have the Talk

Though it might seem counterintuitive, both Blackmon and Simon said that the holidays are a good time to address estate planning with your parents if your family will be gathering together. “It is important that all are included and feel equally included,” said Blackmon.

This doesn’t mean you should bring up your potential inheritance from your parents at the dinner table right after you ask Mom or Dad to pass the turkey. But, you should take the opportunity when everyone is gathered to start a conversation.

Make Your Money Work Better for You
Artfully79 / Getty Images/iStockphoto

Don’t Put It on the Calendar

With that said, you’ll likely get a better reception from your parents if you let the conversation happen naturally rather than scheduling a time to talk, said Morgan. That’s when using a story about your own financial planning or an example of someone’s failure to plan can be effective.

monkeybusinessimages / Getty Images/iStockphoto

Discussing Key Documents

Regardless of the way or when you approach the topic of an inheritance from your parents, the goal of the conversation is to make sure parents have a plan in place so there will be a clear path for whomever is left behind to go forward, Morgan said. Start by finding out whether they have these key legal documents:

  • A will
  • A power of attorney document that designates someone to financial and legal decisions if they are unable to do so themselves
  • A living will or health care directive to designate someone to make health care decisions and specify end-of-life care

Term Life Insurance vs. Whole Life Insurance: Which Is Best for You?

Make Your Money Work Better for You
kupicoo / Getty Images

Finding Out Where They Are Kept

Find out where your parents keep these documents and how you can access them if necessary. Are they in your dad’s desk drawer in the den or maybe in a lockbox in the attic? They could be kept secured at the bank or with a trusted financial advisor, so be sure you can access them, whether it’s by pin number, key or other means.

MangoStar_Studio / Getty Images/iStockphoto

Get Any Specifics on Funerary Arrangements

It may seem morbid, but you’ll also want to ask if your parents have written funeral or burial instructions. Make it clear that you want to honor their wishes, whether that is scattering their ashes in a special place or burying them in their cemetery of choice. Would they like a funeral, wake or perhaps nothing at all? If they want a gathering, would they like their guests to enjoy their favorite flowers, music, etc.? How about having a preferred minister or priest speak?

Dean Mitchell / Getty Images

Gaining Access To Accounts

You also need to ask your parents to provide other important information so you can handle their finances if they are unable to or when they die.

Items to discuss:

  • Account numbers and passwords
  • Insurance policies and contact information for their insurers
  • Contact information for their accountant, attorney, financial planner or other financial professional
  • Contact information for their retirement plan or pension administrator

Make Your Money Work Better for You
PIKSEL / Getty Images/iStockphoto

What To Do When Your Parents Aren’t Comfortable With Handing Over That Information

Morgan said most parents will not be willing to provide their children with their account numbers and passwords. So, she recommends that you ask your parents to make a list of accounts or use “The What If … Workbook” to record important financial information and store it in a fireproof safe in their home along with their Social Security card, passport, deeds and other important documents.

Location Matters: States With Inheritance Taxes

Alex Liew / Getty Images/iStockphoto

Proving Yourself To Be Trustworthy and Reliable

Just as it is important to know when to have these conversations, it is important to know when not to. The key to having any conversation about money is establishing trust. You don’t want to talk to your parents about their estate if you’ve recently argued with them or haven’t demonstrated to them that you can be financially responsible, said Nemzoff. You have to prove to them that you can handle your own finances and that they can trust you with theirs. Note, this may take time.

monkeybusinessimages / Getty Images/iStockphoto

Finally, Read the Room

While it makes sense in a lot of ways, Morgan advises against asking your parents about their finances at times of turmoil, such as the recent drop in the stock market. Your parents might think you’re touching on the topic only because you’re concerned about whether there will be money left for you. If possible, wait until things are “normal” to have big conversations about their estate. Chances are, they’ll appreciate that you are approaching them when they’re not in a tight spot.

More From GOBankingRates

    Erica Corbin contributed to the reporting of this article.