Parents Can Help Ease the Burden

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By Mara Lee
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, July 19, 2008; Page F02

There are things parents can do to make it easier for their children to handle their affairs after they die or if they should become unable to manage them.

Most important: Tell them where everything is. Where’s your will? Where do you have bank accounts, stock holdings or safety deposit boxes? Where are those statements? Where are your tax records? Your utility bills?

Elinor Ginzler, a co-author of “Caring for Your Parents: The Complete Family Guide,” said children should bring these things up, as uncomfortable as it is.

“Don’t wait until bitter crisis,” she said. She recommends that children broach the subject by saying, “I want you always to be in control.”

It’s not comfortable to talk about funerals and burials, she acknowledged, but if parents tell their children how they want them to handle things, they can be assured that they’ll do what they want.
Ginzler said parents should give a child power of attorney in case they have medical problems that prevent them from making their own decisions.

Carylin Waterval, whose mother died rather suddenly in September, established power of attorney while her mother was in the hospital. It was helpful, she said.

Ginzler said that if a parent has become incapacitated before getting this set up, it’s arduous to get it done. “Just being her daughter doesn’t give you that authority,” she said.

Mary Ann Brewer is co-owner of Busy Buddies, a company in Northern Virginia that helps elderly people with downsizing moves, as well as helping people whose parent has died.

She said parents want to treat all their children equally and so sometimes they’ll make them all executors of their will.

“At some point in time, all those children may not be getting along,” Brewer said. “Pick one executor.”

Cyndy Esty, one of six children, traveled from her home in Chevy Chase to Boston to take care of her father’s estate after he died of cancer nine years ago at age 79. She and one sister were co-executors. “It’s amazing how much bickering can come up over the littlest thing,” she remembered, even a candy jar.

After 14 years in the business, Brewer and her partner, Nancy Loyd, have seen a lot of parents seek to minimize conflict over their things, either for a downsizing or planning for after they die.

Some are simple, such as putting the name of the intended recipient on the back of a piece of furniture or the bottom of an heirloom. Or letting the children draw straws about asking for certain pieces.

Others are more involved. In one case, parents gave each child a chance to pick something they wanted, starting from youngest to oldest, then changing the order in each successive round.

Another couple gave each child $500 in play money and set starting bids for belongings. The children had to outbid each other if more than one wanted the same thing.

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