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Something very cool happened recently that made me glad, once again, that I get to do what I do.

A young woman I know through mutual friends asked me if I was the Liz Weston who wrote for MSN. When I said yes, she said my column “Steps you must take when someone dies” was helpful to her and her husband when his mom died six months ago.

She said the column provided the checklist they needed to tackle all the responsibilities they faced in settling the mother-in-law’s estate.

Furthermore, she said, the experience convinced her to talk to her own parents about the arrangements they’d made to deal with incapacity and death. Her parents had tried to talk to her about these issues before, but she’d always brushed them off, fearful of even listening to what they wanted to say.

Rationally, we know that talking about death won’t cause it to occur. But a lot of us hate to think about losing our parents. Still, knowing some details about your parents’ arrangements and finances can help enormously when the time comes that they die or you need to take over for them.

By overcoming her reluctance, my new friend was able to talk with her parents, put their minds at ease and create a binder filled with the information she would need if they became incapacitated or died.

Among the things it can be helpful to know:

  1. Have your parents named someone to make medical and financial decisions for them, if they’re unable to do so for themselves? Who have they named, and have they formalized those choices by having powers of attorney drawn up? Having access to those documents can be critical in an emergency, so knowing where they’re kept and which attorney drafted them is important.
  2. Have they discussed what kind of measures they want taken if they’re incapacitated? Some people would want every means necessary to be taken to stay alive as long as possible, while others would want to limit heroic measures.
  3. Do they have long-term care insurance or a way to pay for nursing home or home care if they need it? Medicare doesn’t cover such costs, and Medicaid pays for nursing home care only for the poor. If your parents don’t have long-term care insurance or substantial savings, you may want to encourage them to meet with an elder law attorney to discuss their alternatives.
  4. Do they have a will or living trust? If so, where is it kept?
  5. Do they have a plan for distributing valuable and/or sentimental objects? Talking about inheritances can be an explosive topic in many families, but often parents can head off disputes by making it clear in advance who gets what.

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We can never be reminded too often to have these conversations.

Just the same, some folks are afraid that by bringing up the subject, the parents may feel threatened.

How do you deal with this issue?


That’s a good point. Parents can feel threatened, or embarrassed, or resentful, so it’s wise to tread carefully. One approach that can work is to talk about your own efforts to deal with these issues first and then ease your way into asking the questions.