How To Ask Your Parents About Your Inheritance

Tips on tackling the trickiest money questions with your folks

There are awkward money questions, and then there's asking your parents about their posthumous financial plans. Talk about a tricky opener. Still, for many of us, the conversation is as uncomfortable as it is necessary.

According to a recent Charles Schwab survey, 53 percent of millennials believe are betting on an inheritance as part of their retirement plans. However, the same survey found that only one in five people actually receive an inheritance from their parents as expected. Grasping the reality of what to expect is one of many reasons to bite the bullet and address this sensitive financial issue. For some, gaining clarity is a way to better understand a parent's wishes, or prevent confusion down the road. For others, it might be more about present needs rather than future planning.

Whatever the reason, the important thing to remember is that your questions are just as important as their answers. So do yourself a favor and consider the following advice, courtesy of both financial and etiquette experts, before you broach the conversation.

How to Start the Talk

When approaching your folks, it's important to lay the groundwork so they have some time to consider how much they're comfortable sharing. "A good way to start this conversation is to reference a resource, such as a book or an article you read about the importance of estate planning," writes GoBankingRates's Cameron Huddleston. "You could share what you've learned or offer to let them read the resource themselves."

Another approach is to be more direct without catching them too off-guard. Suggest setting up a time to talk about the 'I' word and let your folks decide when and where to have the conversation. If they ask why you're broaching the subject, your best bet is to answer with a measure of practicality.

"My clients often say, 'My financial planner has been asking me this question, and I thought it would be relevant to you, too,'" certified financial planner and Brunch & Budget founder Pam Capalad tells The Week. If that's not an option, Huddleston suggests telling them you're looking into your own estate planning and wondering if they've done the same. This opens the door to a larger conversation without putting them too much on the spot.

Make Sure You're Not Creating Disharmony Within the Family

One concern your folks may have is betraying your siblings by only discussing the matter with you. "Do some one-on-one talks first, perhaps among siblings, or the parents with each child," Peggy Post, director of the Emily Post Institute, tells AARP. "But it's also good to get everyone together whenever possible, to make sure everything's out on the table and everyone is on the same wavelength. Even if families don't live close to each other, you can do a video (phone) call on FaceTime or Skype, or at the very least do a conference phone call. It's really good to talk individually and as a group."

The Questions to Consider

You might want to start with a broad ask: "Do you have an estate plan?" If they say yes, you might ask about how it works, rather than digging into the exact numbers. Another question you might ask is: "Are there any documents or resources I should know about in case of an emergency?" Specifically, ask about whether or not your parents have created a will, healthcare directive or power of attorney document that you might need to access, worst case scenario. If you really want to get in depth without touching too much on the actual numbers, check out this "inheritance checklist" containing a list of documents you may need to access one day. When asking your parents about such specifics, make sure you explain that you're just looking to protect their wishes first and foremost.

If You're Asking For an An Advance

It may seem like a long shot, but according to a recent Merrill Lynch retirement study, 77% of retirees now say it's better to pass on inheritances while still alive. Of course this all depends on your parents' financial situation as well as how you plan to use the money. Perhaps you're starting a business, looking to purchase a home, or helping to pay for college for a child of your own. Make sure the money you're asking for is intended to be used soundly and in a way that makes your parents feel secure and satisfied. While your parents might be happy to gift you with a portion of your inheritance, don't guilt them into it. "If you are sure that they are still competent to make this decision and can afford it, ask for a loan," suggests Philip Galanes of the New York Times' Social Qs column. "Let them decide whether to make it a gift." You should also consider asking for a small portion, rather than the entire sum—and if you have siblings, make sure you put any agreement writing so your parents don't have worry about potential disputes in the future. Remember, this isn't just about your needs but theirs as well.

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