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Tips on talking about estate planning with your family

Do you remember being dismissed from school for a long winter break, only to have that unsettling feeling creep in about homework that's due the first day back? You probably put it out of your mind for the first week, but there would come a point when you could no longer put off that term paper or science project -- usually the Sunday night before, which could end in panic and tears.

Even if you're not in school anymore, there are plenty of opportunities to procrastinate over the holidays (last-minute gift shopping, anyone?). But this time of year is also ideal for being proactive, especially where family is concerned. For some people, that means finally having the awkward conversation with their loved ones about estate planning.

No one likes to talk about what should happen when they die or become incapacitated. But with families spread out across the country the rest of the year, holiday gatherings are a great time to discuss these matters face to face. Here are a few tips for The Big Talk:

  • Find a time when everyone is feeling relatively relaxed. After dinner -- maybe over a glass of wine or a slice of pie -- is preferable to rounding everyone up just after they've arrived.
  • Set your goals for the conversation beforehand. Focusing on the basics is usually easier than getting granular. For example, you could tell one another about what should be done if you suddenly can't make your own decisions, rather than determining where all of your assets should go. Not focusing on just one person can also relieve some of the pressure.
  • Consider the audience. If you have a large gathering with more distant relatives, this discussion should be restricted to the key decision makers. If you don't want children listening in, find or create a time for them to play elsewhere. For these reasons, it pays to do some planning with siblings or other family members beforehand.
  • Identify your next steps. If more research needs to be done or an estate planning attorney consulted, make sure you and your family members will follow through. Giving out homework assignments and setting up another meeting can be a good way to ensure the conversation doesn't end there. Perhaps unlike in your childhood, this is homework that feels good to accomplish. 

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