This year have an awkward but productive conversation about estate planning!

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Scene: A quiet December evening in Portland Oregon. A light dusting of snow has drivers abandoning their cars in the streets, while relatives in town from Seattle smugly claim to be great at driving in the snow. Aunt Jo, who travelled all the way from the Midwest for this year’s family gathering, smiles to herself. “Minnesota nice” prevents her from pointing out that the snow isn’t sticking and the temperature is hovering around 35 degrees. The fire crackles gently and the soft glow of holiday lights reflects and refracts prettily off shiny ribbons and shredded wrapping paper strewn about the living room. This accidental light show is largely unnoticed by the children, who have gathered around a new toy with a glowing screen. At the dining room table, the adults enjoy a post meal glass of something warm. It is bucolic and perfect.

That is, until Uncle Frank, apropos of nothing, begins opining angrily about his political opinions and his brilliant strategical gambits on one side or the other of this year’s war on Christmas. Furtive glances are made at watches, and attempts to change the subject are no avail in the face of Frank’s wine flushed excitement. Even Aunt Jo makes an excuse that the weather is turning and says she’ll pack up the kids.

It’s likely that a scene like this unfolds in your household this time of year. Given that there are 14 religious and several more secular holidays that fall between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, the chances that you’ll be sitting down with family to share a meal this month are high. A Reuters poll found that the majority of Americans report that politics are their “least favorite” topics of holiday discussion. But politics always seem to come up, don’t they?

This year, have an awkward discussion of a more productive kind.

Instead of politics, talk with your loved ones about estate planning. Make notes and discuss end of life wishes; ask family if they have they done a will or trust; remind people that marriage or divorce may have invalidated an otherwise complete document; find out who your loved ones would want to direct their care if they are ever incapacitated; discuss who would be best able to care for minor children in the event of the loss of a parent.

These are important and often ignored questions. The AARP reports that 60% of Americans don’t have any estate planning documents. Failure to plan can have all kinds of unintended consequences. Waiting until there’s an emergency situation to prepare documents may cause planning to be rushed, poorly thought out, or impossible to complete.

Estate planning is about more than wealth transfer.

A good estate plan does more than transfer wealth. It includes planning for illness and incapacity as well. Younger family members are often named as decision makers in their parents’ documents, whether that be as a personal representative, successor trustee, attorney-in-fact, or healthcare representative. Having an open conversation about end of life healthcare planning, funeral wishes, planning for long term care costs, or simply deciding who gets the family silver can take a lot of pressure off of an agent in the future.

A discussion about estate planning today may avoid conflict down the road.

Families aren’t always at their best in the wake of a loved one’s passing. Old wounds, perceived favoritism, and good faith misunderstandings can all rear their heads at the worst of times. Additionally, parents may have specific ideas about the passage of their wealth to children, grandchildren, or charitable entities that may surprise the younger generation. An open and honest discussion now about the wishes of the elder generation can help everyone get on the same page and prevent future conflict.

Plan to follow through on your discussions.

Getting everyone on the same page is great, but don’t stop there. Make plans to review existing wills, trusts, powers of attorney, and healthcare documents to ensure that they are accurate and up to date. Make sure the contact information in a healthcare document is up to date. If a document is more than a few years old, review the nominated agents and make sure they are still trusted and able to act. Consider changes that happen with time. A will drafted with concerns about young children may need to be updated when those children are grown.

If you or a loved one don’t have estate planning documents, plan to meet with an attorney to discuss what documents are appropriate. Estate plans are not one-size-fits-all. Depending on age, wealth and family dynamics, it may be more appropriate to have a will or a trust. If planning for family members with special needs is a concern, documents may need to create a special needs trust to avoid an inheritance causing a disruption in services.

The New Year is the perfect time to begin your estate plan.

Once you’ve thought about these issues, call an attorney at the Law Offices of Nay & Friedenberg to discuss planning for you and your loved ones. We will take the time to understand your needs and craft a plan specific to your unique situation and goals.