For many of us, the holidays means getting together with family members we may not see more than once or twice a year. Even if you’re fortunate enough to see your own family several times a year, you might not see your spouse’s, or your siblings, regularly.
In addition to the holiday, every year it dawns on us that our family is getting older. Parents are aging, grandparents may be passing away, and siblings might have kids who are now teenagers!
All this to say: the holidays might be the best time of the year to talk about family finances. Okay, don’t throw things at me! Bring up money during the holidays? Bring up a topic already surrounded by anxiety during a highly emotional time of year?
Unfortunately, even though you may not want to, the holidays might be the perfect time to bring up family finances. Here’s how to bring up the topic of family finances without starting a major fight – and how to diffuse it if you do!
Why Discuss Family Finances During the Holidays?
There are a few reasons why you may want to bring up your family’s finances during the holidays, including the few number of times you see them, aging parents, or discussions of “stuff” in the house.
My parents and I regularly talk about their finances, but for us, it’s a lot easier. I’m an only child and my parents created a trust years ago, because they had been burned by their families as parents passed away and siblings fought each other.
While my parents learned their lesson so I wouldn’t have to handle that burden, my spouse’s family has not learned the same lesson. They ended up discussing family finances over Thanksgiving after someone made an offhand comment on inheriting something of their mother’s – to which another sibling responded, “I thought I was inheriting that!”
The holidays typically bring families together, which means discussing family finances during the holidays makes a lot of sense. No one wants to fight over family heirlooms after a loved one has passed away, and while fighting during the holidays isn’t much better, it is preferable!
How to Tackle the Topic
Clearly, don’t start the topic by saying “So Mom and Dad, you’re doing to die eventually.” I mean, unless you have that type of relationship with your family… but most of us don’t, and it’s also not the best thing to say during the happy holidays.
The best way to bring up the topic of family finances is early: mention to your mother or father (or both) that you’d like to discuss a few family things this year and you’d like their input. Frame it as trying to get clarification, not divvying up inheritance or acting greedy.
It’s helpful to have bad examples of family finance planning. There are countless examples of siblings fighting over inheritance, or of inheritances being tied up in probate, so do a little digging ahead of time and show your family the worst case scenario. Once they’re (hopefully) shocked, explain you’re trying to avoid any of these issues by bringing up the issue now, while everyone is healthy and together. If your siblings try to say “but we’re not like that!”, remind them that money and/or greed can bring out the worst in people, and having a will and understanding on family finances can solve any problems before they arise.
Stress to your siblings and parents that this isn’t about “who gets what” or how much money Mom and Dad have. You could also bring up your parents wishes in regards to senior care: do your parents want to live as independently as possible? Would they prefer living with one of their children? If they haven’t discussed this with you, you have to know ahead of time before Mom and Dad show up at your house with their stuff.
It should go without saying that you need to bring up this topic while everyone is awake, mostly happy, and not hungry. Don’t bring up the topic while everyone is putting food on their plate, or if your sister and her husband just argued in front of the family (again), or while everyone is nodding off while watching TV. You want people engaged and in a positive mindset.
How to Diffuse a Fight
Above all, remain as neutral as possible. Pretend you’re not a part of the family and that you’re an impartial counselor. You can prepare ahead of time by doing a little research into the common types of wills or trusts, and draft some questions you have yourself. For example, if your parents own property out of state, where do they keep the tax documents on these properties? Who do they expect to manage and pay property tax for these properties? Don’t suggest yourself: you’re just trying to help your parents through the process of addressing family finances.
You can also bring up hiring a lawyer to help draft a will for your parents so these questions can be answered and addressed by a truly neutral party. Even if your parents have a will, it’s pretty common for wills to be created and then completed ignored. Ask when was the last time your parents updated the will: has anything major changed since then (divorce, the death of someone in the will, etc.)?
If siblings start to get petty or start rummaging through Mom’s stuff to “claim” property ahead of time, it’s time to shift the conversation to something else. You don’t want to upset your parents or treat them like children. In the end, it really is up to your parents to decide how they want to handle their money, and that might mean they don’t want any input from you at all.
In the end, this is basically what happened with my spouse and his family. They figured some things out, but a few things were left to his parents because they want (rightly) to handle their own finances without any input from their children. This is a respectable decision, no matter how it plays out. When it comes to family finances, things usually aren’t easy, but since family finances aren’t your finances, you have to respect the process.
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How do you feel about tackling the topic of family finances? Have you brought up family finances with your family, and what’s your opinion of talking to parents about their money?
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