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How to Talk to Your Parents About Making a Family Will

By Heather Levin

reading living willA few weeks ago I was talking to my dad about a friend of his who had recently passed away. The friend hadn’t left a will for his family, which included several children and step-children. As a result, the family was in a tense situation, sorting through possessions and unsure who had a right to what.

Of course, this sad story naturally led me to ask my dad if he had written a will. Suddenly, the conversation came to a screeching halt. The tension inundated the room, and he said he hadn’t gotten to it yet. Then, he quickly changed the subject.

It’s not an easy conversation to have. And in retrospect, I can see that I chose the very worst time to broach the subject. He was already upset about the death of his friend, and talking about his own death was just a bit too much that day.

According to the National Caregivers Library, more than half of American property owners die without a will. Dying without a will means that settling an estate will take longer, be more expensive, and likely cause more problems.

No one wants to talk about writing a will. My dad certainly didn’t the day I brought up the subject with him. But this is a conversation that all of us need to have with our parents at some point. If your parent passes away before they make their wishes known, tension and trouble can erupt between family members, right at a time when everyone needs to stick together for support. And no one wants that.

Additionally, what if they’re incapacitated? If they haven’t written a living will, no one will know if they want their life artificially prolonged (or not). And, no one will have the authority to enforce those wishes. This can be a tragic circumstance.

So how can you talk to your parents about writing a will?

1. Consult with Your Siblings First
It’s important that you and your siblings talk together before approaching your parents. Find out how they feel about starting this conversation. You all want to be in this together. If possible, hold a family meeting so you can all talk about creating a will at once.

2. Openly Discuss Your Motives
When you bring up writing a will, it’s vital you explain why you’re broaching the subject. Make it clear that you and your siblings are not bringing this up to define what you will gain. This has nothing to do with you. Your motivation should be focused on honoring your parents wishes, as well as maintaining harmony in the family during a difficult time. The only way you’re going to be able to do this is if your parents have defined their wishes in a legal will.

3. Do Your Homework
Before you sit down with your parents, do your homework. Find out how much it will cost to write a will, and brush up on the negative impacts of not having one. If you go into the situation with plenty of information at your fingertips, you can better convince them that writing a will is the smart thing to do.

4. Be Sensitive
The prospect of writing a will means your parents have to realistically consider their own death, as well as talk about their finances. These are two unpleasant topics! It’s important to be sensitive and empathetic when you have this conversation. If your parent seems really uncomfortable, then don’t push it. Instead, bring up the subject every few weeks, or every few months. Gradually opening the door to this conversation can slowly make them feel more comfortable and open to talking about it.

5. Plan Your Own Estate First
It doesn’t matter if you just turned 21 or 91. If you have money and possessions, especially if you own a home, then you need to write a will. Planning out your own estate is a great way to open the topic with your parents. Let them know you’re writing a will. Then ask if they want to write theirs at the same time. Or, ask if they can offer you some help writing your own. This is a less threatening way to get them used to the idea, and it can motivate them to write one. After all, if their kids have a will then they should have one too!

6. Write Their Will Yourself
If your parents are balking at consulting a lawyer, then help them prepare their own do-it-yourself will. Online sites such as LegalZoom have made the process inexpensive, easy and legal.

Final Word

Have any of you successfully talked to your own parents about their will? Of if you are a parent, what do you wish your kids would say or bring up during this delicate conversation to make it easier?

(photo credit: Shutterstock)

Heather Levin
Heather Levin is a freelance writer based in Detroit, MI. She's passionately committed to living green, saving money, and helping others do the same in their life.

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  • http://www.moneybeagle.com Money Beagle

    All very good points, and I agree it’s a very touchy subject because the interpretation of why you’re asking can certainly be called into question.

  • http://cootiehog.com Jaynee

    My side of the family is all very open about dying, wills and estates. My parents, only in their mid-60s, recently moved into their retirement house. It’s smaller than their old house and they have said it’ll be the house they die in. Before they sold their old house, my mother had my sister and me walk with her through the house and pick out what we wanted to have when my parents passed away. She typed up a list when we were done and had it officially added to the will documentation so that there is no bickering down the road. For years we as a family have joked about “that’s mine when you die, Mom,” and “we’ll give that to charity when you kick it,” etc. We all know that all this stuff on earth is just STUFF and it doesn’t really matter in the long run. But having been burned by her own mother and father’s estate situation (which I won’t get into), she’s determined to have everything settled BEFORE she dies so that she doesn’t have to worry when death comes knocking on her door. In my own immediate family, we’re just as open about it – my 6-yr-old son wants my MP3 player and my 7-yr-old daughter wants my car (which is not even a nice car, but it’s the only one she’s ever known).

  • http://frugalbohemian.blogspot.com Olivia

    My Mom finally got a will when she was in the hospital with the first of many strokes. After she moved in with us we got all of her documents set up. living will, medical and finanacial POA, will and burial trust. It’s a huge load off of us, and allows us to deal with her immediate needs unencumbered.

  • RFK

    It is definitely true that some people are extremely adverse to speaking about their own death. It is a difficult state of denial that is hard to get around. The trick is to be sensitive about the issue as well as their feelings about it. And in California it is important to understand whether one needs a Will or a Living Trust. Having just a Will might force your loved ones into an expensive and time consuming probate. So you need to be careful and talk to an experienced estate planning attorney.

  • Maureen Koelsch

    Excellent article. I totally agree with your first point. Have a family meeting, having all on board/or not (if that’s what each decides) makes it easier for all. The discussion can be tough, but in the end positive outcomes usually arise. Better to have it now when your folks are alive then later.

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