When the family gets together for Thanksgiving, it's an ideal time to catch up on the past year and look forward to the future. Some topics of conversation are more palatable than others, but when families discuss issues related to life and estate planning, they can make significant progress toward protecting their interests and the legacies they leave behind.
Every year on the fourth Thursday in November, far-flung relatives trek home for an annual feast and a long weekend with family.
Americans look forward to celebrating Thanksgiving with overloaded plates, a full day of football and a good long nap. They travel far and wide to endure countless hours surrounded by chatty and opinionated family members, which is why politics and religion are wisely kept off the discussion menu.
Topics like favorite movies and Black Friday sales are safer territory and can prevent food fights. But another way to maintain family harmony in the present and for gatherings and generations to come is by engaging in meaningful conversations about life and estate planning.
Some candid conversations among family members can help keep future misunderstandings and surprises to a minimum and reduce the potential for friction among heirs. Even though discussions about serious matters involving life and death are delicate and can be met with resistance, talking in advance about family values, shared goals and planning objectives is easier than during a period of stress and sadness.
Thanksgiving is a holiday about family, tradition and reflection. A big part of Thanksgiving is simply catching up on what has happened over the past year and sharing our appreciation for the good things in life. Family gatherings are a unique opportunity to assess priorities and make or update plans that protect the interests and legacies of you and your loved ones. If it's possible to broach the big topics - like planning for incapacity, guardianship, long-term care, burial wishes, avoiding probate and other matters - you'll be a step closer to being prepared for some of life's most challenging issues. They are serious and sometimes contentious matters, but at some point, they will need to be addressed. Thanksgiving provides a unique opportunity to have those conversations.
Your family is likely to resist having these discussions, since, for many of us, talking about debilitating diseases, nursing homes and what happens if we become incapacitated or when we pass away is awkward, but those dreaded discussions don't get any easier when it's too late to deal with life events after they've happened. Remember, a family's time together should be a positive experience, and useful discourse doesn't need to devolve into inquisitions about who gets granny's grandfather clock or Aunt Edna's antique armoire. Legal documents can come later, but simple communication is needed to start the process and can include discussing the family's shared interests and values.
If there were any changes in the family tree over the past year, that's a good place to begin. It's never too early, for example, to envision a bright future for a baby making a Thanksgiving debut. Have the parents created or updated their wills and nominated a guardian for their minor children should the unthinkable happen? If there is a child with special needs, is there a plan in place to deal with long-term obligations? Mother and baby laying down Does the grandparents' planning include the recent addition?
Besides the addition of bundles of joy, there are a multitude of other life-altering events that may have taken place over the past year. Marriages, divorces, separations, deaths and other circumstances mean that existing planning documents require review and possible modification, and life's changes can create unanswered questions. Should an alternative guardian be nominated for a new child? Should a new in-law be added as a beneficiary? Do planning documents like wills and trusts need to be changed because of a divorce, separation, death in the family or other circumstances?
Legacies fail when plans are not made, when plans are made but remain secret and when outdated plans are not reviewed and update. Most of all, plans fail when those we leave behind don't understand them. For the more senior members of the family, Thanksgiving also provides a unique opportunity to talk about what decisions they have made, their goals and their values. If you have a plan, discussing it, and the choices you made, while the family is together may avoid future hard feelings and arguments. You are the best person to explain your plan so that your family understands and accepts your choices.
It's a far-fetched goal to expect everyone in the dining room to experience an estate and life planning epiphany. But if your goal is to get the rest of your family talking and thinking about the subject, you've already made significant progress - and perhaps preserved family harmony for many Thanksgiving dinners to come.