Whether sledding merrily through the countryside -- or crawling through urban traffic or long security lines -- the time we spend with our parents and older relatives can so often be special.

So what do we do when we get there? Eat, watch TV or a movie, eat some more, and snooze. But will we take just a small piece of our leisurely stay to talk to our loved ones about things that really matter?

I am referring to the plans that your older relatives have – or haven’t – made for their final years and their deaths. As close as we may be to our older relatives and as much as we wish to honor them, we are often reluctant or even afraid to talk to them about the realities that they are certainly well aware of, but may be anxious about. Unfortunately in our country, death and dying are not considered topics for dinnertime conversation.

At the same time, how many families do you know that are broken apart by misunderstandings about what mom or dad wanted in the event of a fatal illness, where they wished their ashes to be scattered, or who gets her engagement ring or his treasured clock? 

Talking to your elders about these matters, while not festive can nevertheless be an act of celebration – a way of recognizing their wishes and the legacy they’d like to leave.  So on your next trip, take time to talk to them and listen. If this is not a comfortable conversation to initiate, here are some ideas to make it easier:

  • Be sensitive to your elder’s concern with autonomy and independence. He or she may worry that your questions are prompted by a wish to a take control, whether of finances or their living arrangements. Assure them that this conversation is completely abouttheirwishes.

  • Explain how their estate planning choices may impact your own financial planning.  For example, knowing that your parent intends to transfer property to your children could affect your own gifts to your kids, or your plans for funding their college educations. Or learning that a vacation home will be passed to you and your siblings may set in motion a plan to create necessary liquidity to maintain the property or to buy out another’s share.

  • Focus on end-of-life planning– namely, your elder’s wishes for their medical care, and their choice of trusted individuals to make financial and personal decisions if they are unable to do so. Many people think a will is enough, but this document covers only what happens after death. Your loved one needs an advanced medical directive, power(s)-of-attorney, and if appropriate, a living will specifying what life-prolonging measures are acceptable.

  • Communicate your own wishes, as they may impact your parents’ plans. For example, you may wish to tell mom that you do not need a financial bequest but your brother really does, and thereby give her permission to leave her assets unequally – a choice which would otherwise be very hard for her as a mother to make. You may prefer that your children not inherit a sizeable sum of money before they reach a certain age, and so request that your parents make their bequest to a trust that either you or they establish.

But let’s suppose that over the course of this visit the right time never quite presents itself for such discussions. Mom’s too busy with cooking and grandkids, dad always seems to be checked out in front of the TV, or the usual family bickering is making any form of serious conversation all but impossible. What then?

At the very least, talk to your elders about talking. Make a date for a later time when you’ll all be prepared to discuss plans for their later years. Tell them how important it is for you to be informed about their planning so you can make every attempt to honor their wishes. Offer to bring a financial professional into the conversation to facilitate the discussion and ensure that everything that needs covering is addressed.