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Planning your parents’ estate

A strange thing has happened in the past few months. It seems like almost all of my friends are having “situations” with their parents. It’s an age thing.

What is happening is, as we get older our parents do too, in case you didn’t notice. It’s very frightening to see your parents “lose it.” My mom reads the Law Review (as a mom should) so let me be perfectly clear, she is as lucid as ever – and in good health. She also has her financial affairs in order.

Several friends aren’t so lucky. Their parents have health issues, sometimes prolonged illnesses, even severe loss of memory and the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s.



Parents don’t like to talk about their health, death or their financial situation, and would never think of talking about their wills. It’s none of our business.

But it is our business.



We can’t assume that “everything is taken care of.” From my observation, more often than not, nothing is taken care of. The will, if there is one, is old and irrelevant, insurance is inadequate or lapsed, no steps have been taken to address health problems, from something as basic as stairs in the house that soon can’t be navigated to long-term (expensive) debilitating illnesses.

Parents and kids are afraid to broach how the parents will be cared for and whether their financial affairs in are order. While it isn’t easy, it must be done.

The father of a good friend of mine, who was in the insurance business, just died – without insurance – and his wife is forced to sell the family home. If you think you and your brothers and sisters aren’t on perfect terms now, wait until Mom and Dad die without a will or with an obsolete will, or without an intervivos trust that could help save burdensome estate taxes.

Here are some suggestions for beginning that conversation with your mother and/or father:

“So Dad, you sure look handsome today. Hey, have you ever thought about your mortality? We all die, so let’s talk about your will. Where there’s a will, there’s a way – and I am your favorite, right?” Not.

Try something like: “Mom, I bet with the severe decline in the market, like me you’ve really taken a hit. I wonder if it’s time to reassess your portfolio.”

Or try: “Mom, you know I was reading the other day, on average, families pay (pick a number) 40 percent more in death taxes than when they don’t plan their estates.”

Or: “Hey Pops, have you ever heard of an intervivos trust where you and Mom are able to put your property in a trust for the kids, which you control and keep the money from, and it avoids estate taxes? Maybe we should check it out.”

Maybe: “Mom, did you know that under the new changes in estate tax laws, fewer people owe estate taxes. Maybe we should look into it.”

There’s no simple way to approach your parents about their financial affairs. It’s a touchy topic.

Interestingly, my mother and father-in-law would never discuss their finances with my wife nor her brothers, but when I asked, as the son-in-law lawyer, they laid it out. It was the beginning of an unfortunate discovery. Much work had to be done to move properties around and take steps to avoid taxes and become eligible for Medicaid. Whether we took steps in time to avoid the three-year look-back period for Medicaid remains to be seen. The fact that my in-laws’ will was more than 20 years old was the first sign of a problem. Parents need to know that wills should be reviewed periodically.

Who in the family is best to raise the subject with your parents, and who is the parent most likely to be receptive? Maybe all the kids should join in the discussion. Or the family lawyer could help. Appeal to what would appeal to them: saving taxes, avoiding probate, preventing a sale of the family home, protecting the kids, providing for a spouse or preventing an ugly family dispute.

In coming weeks we will explore questions to ask your parents – and estate planning tools. Then you will be ready to start the conversation.

Jim Porter is an attorney with Porter-Simon, with offices in Truckee, South Lake Tahoe and Reno. He is a mediator and was the governor’s appointee to the Bipartisan McPherson Commission and the California Fair Political Practices Commission. He may be reached at porter@portersimon.com or at the firm’s Web site http://www.portersimon.com.

This column is a reprint of a previous Law Review.


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