Nice Girls Talk About Estate Planning

Depending on whom you are talking with, there are various ways to start the conversation.
Going to a woman’s undergraduate college taught me that it’s okay for women to be smart. When I went to Columbia Law School, I found myself explaining that to a very brainy, beautiful classmate who told me she got more dates if she acted dumb. That was in 1978.
Women have come an enormous distance since then. Currently they serve as CEOs of 14 Fortune 500 companies, according to Catalyst. Among them: Indra K. Nooyi at PepsiCo;  Irene B. Rosenfeld from Kraft Foods; Patricia A. Woertz of Archer Daniels Midland, and Ursula M. Burns of Xerox.
Still, for all we have achieved — with our careers, managing our finances, sharing child rearing and other household responsibilities — we’re not as savvy about estate planning as we ought to be. In fact, a recent survey by EZLaw suggests that women care more about losing weight than about protecting their financial assets.
Does this mean women have more will power when it comes to their waistlines, than when it comes to estate planning?
In a field still dominated by men, there’s a lingering tradition of paternalistic tools and techniques – such as locking inheritances up in trusts for widows who presumably can’t even balance a checkbook. Women who don’t speak up about estate planning might wind up capitulating to strategies that put them at financial disadvantage.If so, it’s a shame, because estate planning affects women profoundly. Among Americans 65 and older, 42% of women, but just 14% of men are widowed. Women’s longer life expectancy, combined with their tendency to marry older mates and their lower lifetime earnings means they are far more likely to see their living standards compromised in retirement if proper estate planning isn’t done. And since it is women who most are often widowed, they usually have the last word about which of a couple’s assets ultimately go to family, charity or the taxman.
Perhaps worst of all is how a lack of planning can affect families of young children. Without a will, if your children are minors and you were a single or surviving parent, a court will appoint a guardian for them.
As I noted in a recent article for, “Estate Planning For Women (And the Men Who Love Them),” now, more than ever, women need to take charge of this process, or at least be equal participants.
But how can you start a conversation about this stressful topic? That’s the question I’ve been asked most frequently since my book Estate Planning Smarts was published. In fact, it has come up so often, that I added a special section on the subject to the second edition of the book, published in April.
Sometimes it is best to have a series of talks, rather than covering everything at once. Depending on whom you are talking with, here are some conversation starters.
With your spouse or partner. Couples have their own special ways of communicating, and you know better than anyone which approach will play best with your mate. You can emphasize your own mortality (“I’d like to talk about ways to provide for you and the family in case something happens to me”) make it a subject of mutual concern (“We’re not getting any younger – I think it’s time we did our wills”) or focus on the children (“Now that we are parents, we really shouldn’t procrastinate any longer about doing our wills.”) More about this from my colleague Hani Sarji in his post, “Estate Planning Smarts For New Moms.”
Sometimes it’s easier to start with current events or an anecdote about other people. Perhaps it’s a movie you saw, a book you read, a news report about someone your age who recently died or a sudden death in your community. If a friend or family member has talked to you about their own plan (say you’re the godmother of a friend’s new baby) it can help take the sting off confronting the awful thought that one of you is likely to go first.
Those who encounter pushback from a spouse or partner have a card to play that’s probably not appropriate for other people who are broaching the topic: “We owe this much to each other” or “Please do this for my sake.”
With adult children. While parents have no obligation to change an estate plan after hearing a child’s preferences, disclosing what they plan can help refine their approach. For example, maybe you are thinking of leaving one child a larger inheritance than the others because he has more children. By sharing these details with this child, you might learn that he would rather receive the same amount as his siblings, rather than face their wrath.
Above all, explaining the principles that have influenced your decision could make them easier for children to accept. For instance, don’t assume it’s obvious that you left the summer home to one child because he used it most; a parent’s death or even illness can rekindle sibling rivalries from decades earlier.
Of course, parents who share their thinking risk hostility from adult children who do not like what they hear. To reduce the possibility of a hostile audience, parents may talk to each child separately, rather than addressing them as a group. Afterward, ask each child, “What do you think?” You may be surprised to find that adult children have great ideas and interesting opinions.
With your parents. A trickier situation involves adult children who notice signs of a parent’s mental decline. Once parents become incompetent, they lack the legal capacity to make binding commitments, so it is important to sign estate-planning documents before that happens. But bringing up the matter may threaten a parent’s independence and desire for control.
One possibility is for the child to say: “I just did my own estate plan. Don’t you think you should update yours?” Another is to convey a story about a friend’s parent who did not take the necessary measures (for example, by not signing a durable power of attorney) and how much hardship was caused for those children.
Sometimes there is a fine line between being well meaning and protecting your own inheritance. For that reason, lawyers typically insist that they have an opportunity to meet with the parent separately, even if a child provides transportation to the office.
Their goal is to guard against the two most common grounds for contesting a will or trust. One is undue influence, which refers to efforts to coerce someone to sign estate-planning documents that favor one heir over others. Another is the argument that the client lacked capacity when signing the document.
Sure, it is easy to get frustrated with parents who do not put their affairs in order. But keep in mind that having the conversation requires them to confront their mortality. For both parents and children, that can be a gigantic step.
Not for women only: Have you had this conversation with anyone in your family? If so, please post a comment below telling us how you did it and what happened.