How You Can Talk About Estate Planning Over Thanksgiving

There’s nothing quite like family gatherings to remind us that life is very, very, VERY short.

Sometimes, these gatherings can help you remember how much you love your family or convince you to leave them a little something in your estate plan.

Other times, they remind you that there are some family members that annoy you to your core, like, for instance, little Kevin who made a huge mess at the dinner table last Christmas and had to sleep on the hide-a-bed in the attic. You decide to write Kevin out of your will ASAP.

Like I said, there’s nothing quite like family gatherings…

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, holidays might be the only time each year that you and your family all come together. And I suggest you use that time to talk about what happens when you die. Talk about your estate plan.

But how does that talk come up organically? How can you casually segue from Uncle Bob’s bad joke to the contents of your living trust or your advance directive? It’s not an easy task.

Here are a few simple ways you can work estate planning into your Thanksgiving festivities.

Discussing Your Own Estate Plan

It is of paramount importance that you discuss your estate plan with your family. You can tell just how important it is because I used the word “paramount,” which I have probably only used twice in my entire life.

In honor of Thanksgiving football (and football in general), here are a few “plays” you can run to talk with your loved ones about your own estate plan:

1. The Reverse

In football, a “reverse” is a trick play where the quarterback hands off the ball to the running back, who runs to one side of the field. The defense runs toward that side of the field to tackle the running back.

However, the running back then hands off the ball to a wide receiver who runs in the opposite (reverse) direction, i.e., where the defense is not.

The play is meant to catch the defense off-guard, and it’s really fun to watch when it works.

But this Thanksgiving, the reverse is your new estate planning play.

Here’s the scenario: Your kids arrive at home for Thanksgiving lunch. It smells great. They’re smiling. They’re happy. They’re gullible. And you? You are ready.

You take their jackets and dispense with a few ‘hellos’ and ‘how are yous.’ They don’t suspect a thing. They’re lulled into a false sense of security. You ask them into the kitchen to taste test stuffing or something like that. Did the lie work? Perfect.

This is the part of the play where the running back runs to one side of the field. The defense (your kids) thinks it knows what the play is going to be. They could not be more wrong.

But then, at the last second, just as the kids get to the kitchen, you pull out your estate planning documents and force them to listen to you explain what they should do when you die.

Boom. You just handed the ball off to the receiver and executed a brilliant reverse. Touchdown.

2. The Zone Defense

A friend once told me that whenever you have a third child, you go from playing a man defense to a zone defense. To those who aren’t familiar with football, that sentence might make no sense.

I won’t go into the situational advantages of a man-to-man defense as opposed to a zone. Because you probably get the point. But, in brief, in a man-to-man defense, each defender is assigned to a particular player; in a zone defense, each defender covers a small portion of the field.

Now you know football.

Although I generally recommend that an estate planning “fire drill” involve the entire family, maybe it’s best in your particular situation to split up the group. One spouse takes half of the kids, the other spouse takes the other half.

Also called the “Divide-and-Conquer Approach” or the “Less-is-More Paradox”, this strategy has some potential downsides. If the kids get different explanations of your estate plan, they may have different understandings and different expectations. This can lead to arguments and problems down the road.

Nevertheless, some talking is better than no talking. And you know your family best, so you can talk to your loved ones however you want. But you should definitely talk to them.

3. The Delay

Sometimes known as a “draw”, this is a play in which the quarterback snaps the ball and holds it for a second as though he is going to pass. But then, to the defense’s surprise, he hands off the ball to the running back for a run.

This is a hard play to pull off, and sometimes it can go disastrously wrong. Similarly, if you delay and delay and fail to talk to your loved ones about your estate plan, it could have some bad consequences later on.

However, if you just can’t bring yourself to talk about your estate plan (or maybe you don’t have time), it is very important to prepare and maintain a letter of instruction.

An estate planning letter of instruction is a letter in which you tell your representatives and/or loved ones exactly what they need to do to administer your estate. Pretend you could stand over their shoulder and give them step-by-step instructions. That’s this letter.

Everyone should have such a letter. Maybe you tell your kids about your estate plan, but what if it changes before you have a chance to explain it again? Or what if they need information that is not contained in your estate planning documents? For instance, what should happen to your digital assets and how do they access them?

While the “delay” should not be your only estate planning play, writing a letter of instruction is a bare minimum for any estate plan.

4. The Rhett Butler

Okay, this actually has nothing to do with football. But it can still be a good move.

Sometimes the easiest way to remove a Band-aid is to just rip it off. Maybe you feel as Rhett Butler did when he said, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn [whether or not you feel comfortable talking about my estate plan].”

With this approach, you knock it out right when the kids come over.

Don’t smile at them.

Don’t even say hello.

Just sit them down and tell them you are going to die some day and let them know what your estate plan says and what they need to do after your death.

They may cry. They may laugh (but hopefully not). They may not enjoy it at all, and it might really put a real damper on the overall holiday mood. But talking about your estate plan is something that must be done (even though it’s rarely easy).

This conversation is what we refer to as an estate planning “fire drill.” And while you don’t have to be quite so blunt and unfeeling as all that, it is easy to put off this conversation for years until (ultimately) you never have it. So just get it out of the way.

Encouraging Others to Make an Estate Plan

You know how sometimes you have an uncle who is Prince and he never created an estate plan? No? Well, that’s probably why Prince died without an estate plan.

Just think: if only you had been the voice of reason who convinced him to have a will or a trust, you could have saved a lot of people a lot of trouble (and attorney’s fees).

If you have a relative who doesn’t have an estate plan, here are a few ways you can broach the subject over Thanksgiving this year:

1. Talk about Joe Theismann

Joe Theismann was a quarterback for the Washington Redskins. On November 18, 1985, he suffered one of the most gruesome leg injuries ever shown on live television.

You remember that part in Jaws when a child — a human child — gets eaten in half by a giant shark? This looks worse. It looks way worse.

Whenever you watch video of this injury (and I recommend you don’t), you wince. You maybe even cry. You call your parents to tell them you love them.

In short, thinking about Joe Theismann’s leg injury reminds you of your mortality.

Contemplating their mortality often causes people to consider estate planning. So bring up Joe Theismann at the dinner table at some point, preferably after everyone is done eating. And while they cringe and cry out in existential dismay, ask them if they have their affairs in order.

2. Call an Option

In its most basic form, an option play in football is one where the quarterback snaps the ball and then has the option (hence the name) of running the ball himself or handing it off to another player. If he sees open space in front of him, he can keep the ball; if there are defenders looming in his path, he can hand it off to someone else.

This works great with estate planning.

  • Snap the ball to yourself: Talk about your own estate plan.

  • Run the ball for a little while: Talk about the peace of mind it gives you and how you feel so much better now that you have one.

  • Hand off the ball: Then ask your family/friends whether they have an estate plan.

You have just executed a beautiful option play. Congratulations.

3. Make them feel guilty

This is also not a football play. But it can be really effective.

Estate planning is only partially for your own benefit. Yes, it gives you peace of mind and (as with a power of attorney) can affect you during your lifetime. But for the most part, you create an estate plan for the benefit of your family.

Here are some arguments you can use to guilt relatives into making an estate plan:

Remind your family and friends that if they don’t leave an estate plan, their loved ones may suffer. The solution might be very simple; they might not need to pay an attorney at all! But at least encourage them to consult with an attorney to make sure their affairs are in order.

Talk About Estate Planning This Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving can be a happy time to visit with family. But it is also important to take advantage of this opportunity to discuss estate planning with your loved ones. You never know when your time on Earth is up, so have the hard conversations sooner rather than later.

To discuss your own estate plan, or if you wish to refer a relative to discuss theirs, contact the experienced Oklahoma City estate planning attorneys at Postic & Bates for a free, no-obligation consultation appointment.

David M. Postic is an associate attorney at Postic & Bates, P.C. His practice includes estate planning, probate, real estate, adoption, business law, and litigation.

You can email David through our Contact Us page or by calling our office at (405) 691-5080.

[As with all our posts, the contents of this article do not constitute legal advice and are subject to our site-wide disclaimer.]