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Communication: The key to estate planning.

January 15, 2011

3 Generations of Longs

When I tell people I grew up in a funeral home, the first question I usually hear is, “Was it scary?” For me it was home, it was not scary at all. As a matter of fact, my older brother and cousins would go to the pitch-black basement (the funeral home part was on the main floor) and play hide-and-seek.

            In addition to a large basement in which to play, growing up in a funeral home had advantages. One advantage was the realization that life could end at any time. Most deaths were people who were older, but there always were premature deaths that shocked the community. That has taught me and my family to seize each day and live life to its fullest.

            One of the saddest lessons I learned from life in a funeral home was seeing how the death of a patriarch or matriarch could destroy a family. At a time when a family should rally around each other, there were times you could see this death was going to cause trouble between the surviving siblings.

            The conflict usually involved money. Countless families have been divided by how an estate was left to children. There are hurt feelings and jealousy as to why who received what. There are two things someone should do in their estate planning to prevent this from happening. The first is by to make sure your affairs and documents are in order. I will cover more on this next week. The second is to make sure you communicate with your heirs about who is going to receive what and why.

            This communication is difficult because we do not like to talk about death. Because of this, these conversations usually happen at the wrong time. If it is something you think your family needs to discuss, plan ahead and talk about it together as a family. Below are some tips to help get you started:

No. 1: Don’t focus on money. When visiting with family members, try to identify the wishes of the family.

No. 2: Look for opportunities to talk. This usually is not something someone brings up out of the blue. If there is an incident where a friend of the family is in a similar situation, it may be the opening everyone needs to start thinking about the situation for their own family.

No. 3: Ask “what if” questions. Ask your parents what would happen to them, their family, their possessions, if different incidents occur.

No. 4: Explain why you want to talk about these issues. It is important for people to know your motives. People should know the need to talk is to make things better for the family in the future, not to divide who gets what while people are still alive.

No. 5: Remember that listening is the most important part of communication. You may have your own priorities and wants, but it is important to learn about the feelings of others.

            The Nagle Law Group ( advises individuals to share four things with their family about their estate plan. First are your wishes for your children regarding how you want the inheritance to be used. Second includes where you keep your important documents. Third is who you have designated as your durable power of attorney. Finally, it is important to share information about medical treatment preferences and preferences for funeral and burial arrangements. These are very difficult things to talk about when emotions are running high.

            I learned a lot by growing up in a funeral home, but I have learned more from my parents who run the funeral home. They have talked with my brothers and me a variety of times about some of their wishes for a possible future inheritance. The one recurring theme has been how they do not want us to fight over family property. The importance has been on keeping the family strong now and in the future. They also have given us some of our inheritance now, so they can see us enjoy it. For example, they gave my two brothers and me money when we bought our first homes to use for down payments.

            The communication you have with your family now can make a huge difference with future generations of your family. A death in a family is difficult to deal with; it can become almost impossible if the inheritance breaks a family apart. Talk it over with your family while there is still time. This will help your family have a positive legacy even after you have left this earth.

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