Tips to help aging parents talk to their adult children about end-of-life planning
The late Mary Osthus had what her daughter, Martha Reeves, refers to as a “funeral box.” That box contained everything from copies of her will and powers of attorney to photos, Bible readings and songs she wanted used at her funeral. It also included a list of how she wanted her financial legacy divided and her obituary, which she had written.
“I’m surprised she didn’t write the pastor’s sermon, too,” says Martha, a Thrivent client in Dickson, Tennessee, with a laugh. But on a serious note, “planning the end of her life and sharing that with my sister and me were very important to Mom.”
So much so that Martha was included in her mom’s meetings with Jack Ficken, her Thrivent financial associate in Fairview, Tennessee, who also serves Martha's family. Ficken helped Mary set up a financial plan that would provide tax efficiencies after she died, while taking care of the people and places she loved. And there were no surprises for Martha and her sister, Ruth Garcia, when Mary died in September 2022.
“Mom planned well and made all her own decisions, and I simply had to carry them out,” Martha says. “We sat down and went through it step by step. I knew what she wanted to give to the grandchildren, three different churches, her high school and college. I felt empowered to do what Mom wanted.”
The transparent way Mary communicated with her children isn’t always the norm, for various reasons. Parents and their adult children may not want to think about end-of-life plans. Many families don’t discuss money, so the topic can feel awkward or even taboo. Some parents simply don’t want their children to know their financial picture.
“It can be uncomfortable talking about money and death,” Ficken says. “However, avoiding the conversation could lead to your wishes not being carried out if you become unable to make your own decisions or when you die. And even though you don’t think it would ever happen, not talking about it could divide your family.”
Brock Howard, Thrivent financial advisor in the Gateway Financial Group in St. Louis, Missouri, calls it “an act of love” when the adult child knows what Mom and Dad really want. “That conversation provides clarity for what needs to be done, giving your child confidence in the process. It saves a lot of stress when the difficult moments come,” Howard says.
If you haven’t already talked with your adult children about your end-of-life plans, here are some tips to get started. (And adult kids, if your parents haven’t initiated a conversation with you, this is a good place for you to start, too.)
That conversation provides clarity for what needs to be done, giving your child confidence in the process. It saves a lot of stress when the difficult moments come.
Reflect on your wants & expectations
Before initiating a conversation with your adult children, consider what information you want to share and with whom you want to share it.
Family dynamics can impact whom you want to share your end-of-life plans with, says Jennifer Warner, advice services consultant at Thrivent. Some people are more equipped than others to handle money situations. Geographical location also may play a role.
“You may want to start with the person you trust the most and gradually incorporate others into the conversation when it’s time,” Warner says.
At a minimum, your family should know where to find important paperwork, such as your
“You don’t necessarily need to tell the kids every last detail about your plan,” says Matthew Claus, a Thrivent financial advisor who partners with Howard in St. Louis. “The most important piece is to tell them you have a plan in place, and if something happens, here is where you’ll find it.”
If you wait too long to share your wishes, your family may have to make decisions off their personal emotions instead of your expectations, Howard says. “It’s rare to make good decisions when emotional. And you risk that your desires and expectations won’t get honored because they don’t know what they are.”
Set a time & place
Next, decide when and where to have the conversation. Maybe your family gathers for Thanksgiving or Christmas. While you may not want to bring it up at the holiday meal, these natural times of family gatherings can be a great opportunity to talk.
“You want to make sure you’re in a space that’s comfortable for everyone,” Howard says. “And let them know in advance that you want to talk to them about your finances and wishes. Don’t surprise them.”
While it’s ideal to do the conversation in person, especially with the emotion that may be involved, don’t underestimate the power of technology if you’re geographically spread out. It can help bring everyone into the same room, too.
You also may consider inviting your children to a meeting with your financial advisor, like Martha's mom did. The financial advisor can help guide the conversation or even be a neutral third party if the discussion gets uncomfortable.
“I always encourage my older clients to bring one or all of their children into a meeting with me,” Claus says. “I won’t share account balances, but I can share the plan they’ve created, including what are taxable and tax-free dollars, and which accounts to dip into if Mom and Dad need care.”
Set the agenda for the conversation
While this is by no means a formal meeting, you will want to have a list of topics to discuss with your children. You may want to start with a broad discussion of your wants and wishes but consider adding some or all the following to the conversation.
- Will: Where is it located and who is executor of your estate
- Health care directive/living will: What are your wishes about end-of-life medical care?
- Powers of attorney: Who has been designated to make financial and/or health decisions on your behalf?
- Healthcare expenses: What plans are in place for expenses that may arise?
- Retirement and investment accounts: How have you decided to disburse these accounts?
- Life insurance contracts: What do you have, and who are the beneficiaries
- Passwords and digital accounts: Where is the information stored for your online financial and social media accounts? What do you want to happen with your social accounts when you die?
- Funeral or burial wishes: Have you preplanned? How would you like to be remembered?
“It’s important for the kids to know where documents are stored, along with phone numbers for your financial professional and attorney, if you have one,” Ficken says.
Allow for questions
After you’ve talked about financial specifics, your loved ones may have some questions. Or they may just need to think out loud a little. They’ve just been given a lot of information to absorb, and many emotions may arise.
“Allow room for dialogue and be prepared to listen as much as you talk,” Howard says.
They may want to know more about why you made certain choices so they can understand. “You’ve created your plan out of love for your family,” Ficken says. “If you explain your choices to them while you’re alive and let them ask questions, it can keep peace in the family when you’re no longer here.
“When it comes to medical decisions, if you explain why you’ve documented that you don’t want to be on a ventilator, or if you want it removed after so many days, then it’s not them making the decision. It’s your decision they are abiding by.”
Plan for future updates
While it’s great you’ve opened up to your adult children about your plan, this isn’t a one-and-done conversation, Warner says.
“It’s a process,” she says. “For some, it may be too overwhelming to cover everything in one conversation. Or life events may cause you to re-evaluate or change your documents over time. Plant the seeds and build on it, sharing any changes as you go.”
Martha doesn’t take the conversations she had with her mom about end-of-life planning for granted. She and her husband already have empowered their three adult sons, who are 30, 26 and 25, with the information they would need in case of serious illness or death.
“We have our wills and other paperwork in place, and our oldest son is executor of the estate,” Martha says. “We have sat down with them to tell them what we want. Our funeral arrangements are made.”
Martha knows there will be more conversations in the future, and she still wants to write things out in more detail, but she also has told their sons: “Just go talk to Jack. He’ll guide you through it.”
Donna Hein is senior editor of Thrivent Magazine.