A Conversation with Dan Rottenberg
Based on an interview with Mara Peluso
When I was doing research on trust beneficiaries, it occurred to me that 90% of the problems beneficiaries encounter with trustees could have been avoided if children had talked to their parents about death. Of course, that's easy to say, but one of the toughest things in the world to do. It's harder to talk to our parents about money and death than it is to talk to them about sex. I think this is the reason people have problems broaching the subject of their inheritance with their parents.
I'm no different from anyone else. I don't want my dad to die and I don't want his money, so I didn't want to have that conversation-but I made myself do it. If you don't have the conversation, then the government winds up taking a lot of the money and it will end up getting distributed in ways that no one would want it to be distributed.
To begin the conversation, you first have to understand that you have no right, legally, to know what your parents are going to do with their money-and they are under no obligation to tell you. Very often, however, parents are eager to talk about it; they just don't know how to start.
I've found the following steps to be helpful in initiating "the inheritance conversation" with parents:
Make your own financial plan. Draw up your assets and liabilities, and share it with your parents. This gives everyone a place to start talking.
Ask your parents about their concerns. Are they worried about outliving their money? Are they worried about health care, or about living alone or in a nursing home? If they feel you are looking after their interests, they are going to be less worried about their money.
Write your own will and show it to your parents. Once you start talking about your own will, they're more likely to start talking about theirs. Many people haven't even written a will, so you need to find out if your parents have one. If they haven't written theirs, it is critical that you urge them to write it. Each state varies in the formula it uses to divide an estate. In some, everything automatically goes to the spouse. In many states, nothing goes to the children if the spouse is still alive. Very often, estates with no will end up in the hands of judges, and their decisions can be very arbitrary.
It's actually easier to start talking to your parents about money and death before it appears to be necessary. That way, you're not so emotionally wrapped up in feelings of loss or grief. And once things are worked out, the sense that things are taken care of can feel like a burden lifted-for everyone.
Dan Rottenberg is the editor-in-chief of Family Business Magazine and a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer . He has written articles for Forbes, The New York Times Magazine, and Town & Country, and is the author of The Inheritor's Handbook: A Definitive Guide for Beneficiaries (Bloomberg Press, 1998).
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