How to Help a Loved One Plan Their Estate

Learn how to get the conversation started and proactive steps that you can take to help your loved one put their wishes in writing.

If someone you care about doesn’t have an estate plan, there are many ways you can help. Lack of planning is a real concern--it can lead to chaos, uncertainty, and expensive legal fees. Your loved one, like many people, may put off estate planning because they don’t want to think about tough subjects like end-of-life medical decisions or their own mortality.

You can find peace of mind for you and your loved one by getting the conversation going, figuring out who should make key decisions, and making an estate plan that addresses your loved one’s wishes.

Get the Conversation Going

First, start the conversation. This can be the hardest part because your loved one might want to avoid this subject. Consider when and where you have this discussion. For example, try talking to your loved one in their home or another comfortable setting rather than in a lawyer’s office, which may seem cold or adversarial. Bring up the subject during a calm time when your loved one is least likely to be under stress.

Tell your loved one why you’re concerned and be clear about your intentions. You might point out the significant benefits of having an estate plan in place, such as:

  • having your loved one’s wishes known and understood by the family
  • being able to make important health care decisions before an immediate concern is present
  • avoiding legal battles if there’s contention in the family, and
  • protecting others, including minors or adult children with disabilities.

Talking about an estate plan can be an ongoing discussion. To help your loved one open up, you might talk about what you put in your own estate plan and how you came to the decisions you made.

Choose the Right People for the Jobs

Help your loved one figure out who will be the decision makers when he or she dies or is no longer able to make decisions about money or health care.

For medical decisions, your loved one can use a durable power of attorney for health care to appoint an agent. The agent – in some states called a surrogate or proxy—will have the power to make medical decisions when your loved one can’t make them for him or herself. The right person for this job usually:

  • knows your medical values and what kinds of treatment you would want to receive
  • will respect your wishes even if they have different values, even under difficult circumstances
  • will be assertive about what you would want if challenged by others, and
  • will likely be available and accessible in case of an emergency.

Some people prefer to name an agent who has experience in healthcare, but it’s more important to name someone who will act in your interest if you can’t communicate your own wishes. It’s a good idea to name an alternate agent in case the first choice can’t be reached or can’t do the job.

Your loved one will also want to name someone --or several people--to take care of financial issues when he or she can no longer manage them. There are many ways to do this, depending on your loved one’s needs and wishes. You can name an agent or attorney-in-fact to make general or specific financial decisions. You can name a trustee to take care of property you put into a trust. And you can name an executor to wrap up your estate and deal with the probate court after your death.

Good candidates for these roles will be:

  • good at handling money and keeping detailed records
  • without financial problems, like drug addictions or prior bankruptcies
  • close enough geographically to perform the necessary work, and
  • trustworthy and willing to honor your wishes.

The people named to these positions need to be willing to take on these responsibilities, so have your loved one talk to any potential agents, trustees, or executors to make sure they’re on board. It might be comforting for these future fiduciaries to know that they can (and should) seek legal advice if they need guidance performing their roles.

Make Some Tough Decisions

You may need to help your loved one make some difficult decisions. For example, he or she may need to:

  • Decide what medical treatments to receive in an emergency or while incapacitated. (These wishes can be documented in a living will, advance directive, or POLST form.)
  • Name someone to care for minor children. (This designation is usually included in a will.)
  • Decide how to pass on property. (Property is most commonly transferred through wills, trusts, or beneficiary designations.)
  • Make final arrangements. What should be done with your loved one’s body after death? Does your loved want a funeral, memorial, celebration of life, or other ritual?

Drafting Documents

After your loved one has laid the groundwork for their estate plan, you can help them create their documents. With WillMaker Plus you can create a will, powers of attorney, a living trust, and final arrangements. The program walks you through each step and gives you lots of help along the way. For complex estates—if you or your loved one prefers to work with a professional—get help from an experienced estate planning attorney in the state where your loved one lives.

Keeping the Plan Current

You can also help your loved one keep the estate plan up to date. Your loved one might want to update a named agent or executor if a relationship changes or if the named person dies or becomes incapacitated. Or sometimes a marriage, divorce, death, or birth of a child may trigger a desire to update the beneficiaries in a will or trust.

You may be able to update an existing document with an amendment or codicil. But unless the change is very simple, it’s usually clearer to revoke the old document and create a new one using good self-help materials (like WillMaker) or with help from an attorney.

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