Americans are loath to talk about death, dying, legal and money matters with family members, so it becomes difficult for adult children to sort out their parents' affairs after their deaths. The time to broach the subject is now, when your parents are healthy and able to have constructive input. As hard as this is, there are ways to talk with and eventually take over your aging parents' legal decisions.
Schedule a family meeting. First and foremost, you need to get all parties involved together in one place at the same time to open a dialogue. This way, all siblings and spouses will hear the same thing from your parents about whom they wish to handle legal decisions, both now and after their death.
Choose to do this before a health crisis. The optimum time to discuss and take over legally is really when your parents are healthy, not after they suffer a life-threatening condition that impairs their decision-making skills or allows their emotions to take over.
Listen to your parents. They've chosen you to take over their legal decisions, but if you want to honor your parents and to avoid unpleasant arguments and hurt feelings, you need to listen to their wishes. Just because it's you signing the documents doesn't mean that they can't have input about their own lives.
Seek professional help. This process is too important not to be given serious consideration. To aid you and your family through the shifting of legal responsibilities, call upon an attorney, an accountant or even a counselor. Some families will fall in line with one another and only need help with the particulars; others will need help to get along with each other before any legal transaction can take place.
Learn about the assets. It's not enough to agree with your parents to take over the legal decision making. You have to do your homework and be prepared to do so. This entails delving into all realms of financial and personal issues, including Social Security, retirement benefits, insurance policies and living wills and last wills.
File the correct papers. This is where you definitely need an attorney, so you can file the necessary papers to assume control based on your parents' current needs. The two most commonly filed documents in this case are guardianship papers and the power of attorney. Once you've gone through the steps to prepare your parents and the rest of your family for this adjustment, it's time to do the paperwork.
Tips & Warnings
- When scheduling a family meeting, choose a time that's not a high-stress point. For example, don't decide that Thanksgiving is a great time to go over legal issues just because the whole family will be together.
- Remember that respect is key. Emphasize the point with your parents that you don't want to take away their independence, only aid them in keeping it.
- Mention to your parents that discussing their finances and legal issues is a good thing for all their children; it will help them with their financial planning, and that of any grandchildren.