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When You're Gone: An Open Letter to My Parents

Mar 18, 2020 5 min read Ilana Polyak

Key Takeaways

  • Talk about the wishes they have for their estate and end-of-life care.
  • Minimize conflicts by getting a clear understanding of who will inherit what.
  • Is there a will? Who will ensure that its provisions are carried out?


End-of-life conversations are difficult for both adult children and their parents. In an ideal world, parents would initiate these discussions, explaining their wishes and detailing their plans. Unfortunately, it doesn't always happen that way. Some parents need coaxing to reveal the kind of inheritance they want to leave and what wishes they have for their caregiving toward the end of their lives.

Of course, every family is different. A large estate is bound to have more complexity, as is one that’s going to be divided up among many family members. No matter how your parents intend to divide theirs, it's important that they prepare you for what's to come. Consider writing them a letter like the one below to get the conversation going.  Use this as a general template, adding details that fit your specific family situation.



Dear Mom & Dad,

Thank you for the guidance and support you've given me throughout my life. Now I need your help again. I need to know your wishes before you pass away, so I can make sure they're carried out. In order for me to do that, we need to have a frank conversation.

I understand this may be difficult for you, as it is for me, too. You might worry that starting this conversation might lead to you losing control of your affairs. Or maybe you're embarrassed that you're not leaving behind as big of a legacy as you had wanted.

But this letter isn't meant to cause any discomfort. Its purpose is to start an important conversation so I can understand your wishes and see if you need any help in reaching your goals. Putting your affairs in order will help ensure that things are done the right way — your way.


What will be your legacy?

What is it you want to be remembered for by your children, grandchildren and other relatives? Do you want Emma and Sam to know how much their grandparents value education? Do you want Elliot to appreciate the importance of a family home, and Sally to understand what it takes to launch a successful business? Perhaps philanthropy is how you’ll choose to define your legacy.

An inheritance is a powerful tool to help instill those values. At the same time, inherited wealth brings tremendous responsibility. Perhaps you're concerned about its potential negative impact. This is your opportunity to structure an inheritance in a way that prevents your heirs from making poor decisions. You can limit how much you want to leave them and when you want them to have it, and be explicit about what you want it to be used for.

I want to carry out your wishes

Even if you are clear about the values you're seeking to instill, you must also take the necessary estate planning steps. Did you know that one in five people who are 72 and older don't have a will, as a recent Caring.com Opens in new window survey found? Do you have one?

A will is the cornerstone of an estate plan because it lays out how you want your estate to be divided among your heirs. Without one, the state will decide how your assets should be divided. I hope you've taken the step of consulting with an estate planning attorney to draft a will that takes into account all of your goals. If you haven’t already, you should consider whom you would like to be the executor of your estate, to help manage it after you're gone.

In addition, you may want to consider setting up a revocable trust that can help your heirs avoid the time-consuming and costly probate process.

Help our family stay united

I know how proud you are of Katie, who has dedicated her life to social work and made the financial sacrifice to do so. Simon has come through for you by taking a leave of absence from his job to care for you. Because I have a lucrative law career and have not needed to take a hiatus, I will understand if you want to leave Katie and Simon more of your wealth.

 “This letter isn't meant to cause any discomfort. Its purpose is to start an important conversation so I can understand your wishes and see if you need any help in reaching your goals.”

Whatever your plan, I hope you will communicate it clearly to everyone, along with the reasoning behind your decision, which will potentially help to avoid any disagreements or rifts in the family — something I'm sure you don't want to be your lasting legacy.

What kind of care do you want?

In addition to your money and other assets, we must also address your medical care and what types of treatments you want if you are no longer able to communicate your wishes. There are many medical advances now, but you may not want aggressive interventions to prolong your life. We want to honor whatever wishes you have.

To do that, I need to make sure you have a medical power of attorney, a document that allows someone else to make medical decisions for you and have access to your medical information. Usually that job goes to a family member, but maybe you'd prefer to ask someone outside of the family. It's up to you.

Additionally, an advanced directive or living will spells out your health care wishes in advance; it’s an excellent guide, for whomever you choose as your power of attorney, to ensure they're making decisions in accordance with your wishes.

In closing, I hope you understand this letter comes from a place of love. As you are thinking about your legacy and what medical care you want at the end of your life, let us help you make those wishes a reality.

With love and gratitude,



What you can do next

Having conversations about death and money, while uncomfortable, are necessary to ensure your parents' wishes are carried out. The next step is proper estate planning documents, which codify those wishes. A durable power of attorney, for example, gives someone your parents appoint the power to make financial decisions for them in case of mental incompetence or major illness. Otherwise, a court may have to decide what happens to your parents' assets, and may come up with a plan that's completely at odds with what they would want.


Please consult your tax and legal advisors regarding your particular circumstances.




Ilana Polyak is a freelance writer who specializes in personal finance and the financial advisory industry. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Barron's, Kiplinger's Personal Finance, Bloomberg BusinessWeek and CNBC.com.


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