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Estate Burdens & Opportunities

Here is my well-worn phrase of the day: “It is not what you say, but how you say it.”

Family conversations infused with humanity and understanding have a better chance of being valued than lectures.

Lectures are more efficient and require less time to administer, but carry with them a presumption that the lectured are either inexperienced, stubborn or intellectually lacking. The lecturer is hoping the message sinks in and changes behavior. The lectured often feel attacked, devalued or pressured.

While there are times when short expressive bursts of blunt truths are necessary to achieve a result, go to that well too often and your loved ones will shut down. Nowhere is this dynamic more apparent than the relationship between an adult child and aging parent.

Plastic bags, empty boxes, envelopes piled to the ceiling and assorted knick-knacks await a large number of adult children tasked with the job of managing a parent’s estate. In addition to the “stuff” problem, there may be a document problem. A lack of estate planning, incomplete beneficiary forms and undiscovered financial accounts could disrupt the estate process.

Would you remain calm and patient if all of those burdens stared you in the face? No. A lecture would be difficult to resist.  

Be forceful and they shall retreat… A parent aware of their shortcomings may not want to be harshly and continually reminded. Part of trust building is allowing your loved ones to be themselves, talk about their fears, and remain engaged without ripping them apart. If you know you can be listened to without negativity, you will keep talking.

Spirited conversations are fine. Passivity is not the answer. After all, you want your parent to sign that Power of Attorney, throw out old bags and ensure their hard-earned money does not disappear.

A three-dimensional estate plan does not have to be super complicated. There are financial accounts, real property and tangible property (plus intellectual property for any inventors and creative people). A parent working with a financial advisor can organize their financial accounts, set up current beneficiary forms to avoid probate, and have budgets prepared. Estate attorneys can draft trusts or life estate deeds that allow real property to pass to adult children outside of probate.

Cleaning services, auction houses, antique experts and tag sale consultants can be called upon to deal with your parents’ stuff.

Stubbornness can derail an adult child’s best intentions. Finding one sliver of planning daylight may break through some of that resistance. Maybe a parent would be open to talking with a financial advisor or an attorney. A parent may be excited about the prospect of an antique holding higher-than-expected value. This could lead to softening views on estate planning.

Lectures are tempting – they are displays of power and control. Remember that the person you are lecturing is someone you have loved for a long time. You do not share their vulnerabilities, fears or priorities, but your patience and expressions of understanding will keep them in your corner. That comfort and trust could lead to changed behavior.

Alan D. Feller, Esq., is managing partner of The Feller Group, located at 625 Route 6, Mahopac. He can be reached at


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