Critical conversations about inheritance

Family members need to talk about potential changes in health, inheritance, and estate planning issues before there is a crisis or someone is not able to communicate. But families fail to start these important conversations. Communicating and advance planning can reduce feelings of burden, guilt, and misunderstandings. It can also reduce conflict that is often experienced when family members are put in the position of making decisions for others.

So why don't we talk?

Denial of our own or other's mortality is often the reason conversations about inheritance can be so sensitive. Few people want to give the impression that a family member might die or that they would want someone to die. Talking about human losses or changes in health can be emotional. It can also be filled with legal and financial complexities that many find overwhelming. A family history of conflict can make it difficult to talk about later life transitions of aging parents.

Helping family members talk about issues that they normally do not want to address is the focus of my research on inheritance issues. This research has been used to develop tools to help families begin thoughtful communication about the inheritance issue of personal possessions.

Talking about inheritance

Here are ten tips for talking about inheritance:

  1. Be clear about your own motives for raising the issue. What are your concerns, what do you want to have happen, and why?
  2. Respect the fact that others may not be ready or able to face their own or another's death. It can be difficult to talk about about personal property right after a funeral. There may be too many feelings of grief and loss.
  3. Remember that listening is the part of communication we too often forget.
  4. Ask "what if" questions. For example, "Dad, what would you want to have happen with the things in the house if you and Mom were no longer able to live here?"
  5. Look for natural opportunities to talk. When a friend or relative is dealing with transferring personal possessions when someone moves or dies, use the time to start talking. Ask, "What would you have done if you were in that situation?"
  6. Recognize that family members will have different feelings and opinions. Conversations should focus on discovering where those involved agree and disagree. [The Who Gets Grandma’s Yellow Pie Plate?™ Workbook section, Watch for blaming (PDF), gives tips for minimizing blaming behavior.]
  7. When another family member raises the issue, be willing to listen and talk. Adult children are just as likely to refuse to talk as parents or in-laws.
  8. Not speaking up means that others will not know your opinions or feelings.
  9. Use the Who Gets Grandma’s Yellow Pie Plate?™ DVD as a conversation starter. It helps everyone involved hear the same messages.
  10. Share worksheets from the Who Gets Grandma’s Yellow Pie Plate?™ Workbook (booklet or interactive CD). Begin communicating with family members about what is most important to accomplish. Talk about what fair means, and identifying the items that have special meaning.

For more information, contact us.

Marlene S. Stum, Extension specialist and professor in family social science

Reviewed in 2012

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