Awkward and difficult as it may seem, every family needs to have a serious discussion about the unthinkables, and those are the financial, legal and medical decisions that need to be made when something happens to one or both parents.
A Fictional Example
Here’s one example of why that conversation is so important and it illustrates how having had the difficult conversation made a difference:
Husband and wife (call them the Smiths for simplicity and anonymity) have five children. Both of the Smiths worked hard until they retired. Then, because two of their children had moved to Arizona, the Smiths decided to retire there. They looked forward to enjoying their leisure years and the Arizona climate after living for so many years in the Northeast with its often harsh winters.
But one year after their move, Mrs. Smith had a stroke and her husband became her caregiver. The relaxed retirement near sunny golf courses and swimming pools they had envisioned abruptly and totally disappeared. They managed for several years with Mr. Smith as her primary caregiver. But gradually, he became increasingly forgetful and he realized that his own mental capacities were declining. He worried he might be experiencing the onset of Alzheimer’s.
At the same time that he was worrying about his mental lapses, Mr. Smith developed potentially serious health problems, first his heart and then diabetes. He recognized that his caregiving ability was being affected, and that he, too, might soon need a caregiver. With this sobering realization, he and his wife moved into an assisted living facility.
This family had the difficult conversation about what needed to be done if anything happened to one or both parents well before the move to Arizona, early enough to get the parents’ affairs in order. They had set up a trust, identified trustees and successor trustees, taken care of legal decisions, financial management and medical directives to avoid an unworkable situation where five people would be asked to make decisions. In general, their affairs were in good order due to their planning.
Mr. Smith’s mental ability declined rapidly after they moved to assisted living, so he decided to remove himself as trustee for his affairs while he was still able to do it and, in this way, do what he thought was best for his wife and their children.
Mr. Smith died shortly afterward, but because they had been in assisted living with memory care, and because he had planned ahead, within a week his wife was moved to a smaller unit in the same facility. This reduced her financial burden without changing her social and care environment.
Mrs. Smith was only in her new quarters for a short time. As her family reported, she seemed fine one day but by the next morning was gone. Again, the advanced planning paid off. The legal and financial complications of two deaths so close together would have added to the family’s burden of grief, but due to the careful advance planning, more than 90 percent of the estate was distributed according to the parents’ wishes within 90 days of Mrs. Smith’s death, leaving any final details to the estate’s designated accountants and attorneys.
Unfortunately, most families don’t plan ahead the way the Smiths had and don’t have a workable plan in place well before it might be needed. It is also true that few people have the courage it took for Mr. Smith to recognize what was happening to his mind and health and take the necessary steps to protect his wife and family. If not for his foresight, doctors would not have known what he wished in terms of care and the courts would have taken charge and decided how to handle his affairs.
For the Smith family, advance planning made a huge difference. Their affairs were in order, legal complications were avoided, and doctors knew what kind of care was desired. Their experience underscores the importance of advance planning. It also raises the issue of whether there is an ideal time to have a family discussion and develop a plan.
The answer is yes. To learn why, read the article, The Best Time for “The Difficult Conversation.“