my two cents

My Elderly Parents Refuse to Make a Will

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My parents are in their 70s and dealing with some health issues. I certainly don’t want to think about them dying, but the problem is that they don’t either. They have nothing prepared in terms of a will. I don’t even know what their finances look like. I’m their only child, and I worry about having all of this stuff land in my lap if one (or both) of them gets really sick.

I started thinking about this last year, after one of my uncles died suddenly and left behind a big financial mess that my cousins are still struggling to clean up (he owed back taxes, had bank accounts and properties no one knew about). When I’ve tried to talk to my parents about this, they usually just mumble something about how they’ll get around to it. But we’ve never talked about money as a family, so I have no idea what to do next or what to expect.

My parents are very proud people. They immigrated to the U.S. as students in their 20s, worked hard, and now own several properties. I’m not worried about them running out of money, but I am concerned that things might fall through the cracks as they get older, especially if they keep putting off this process. I want to have more of a plan in place. How do I get them to come around?

I created my own will shortly before my son was born almost two years ago. I had an excessive fear that I would die or become incapacitated during childbirth, and I wanted to make sure that “my affairs” were in order. (Looking back, it was a desperate attempt to control whatever I could before surrendering to the void of parenthood.)

Anyway! In the grand scheme of not-fun adult chores, I’d rank estate planning (the legal term for determining what happens to your money and stuff after you die) somewhere below doing taxes (not fun but manageable) and above dealing with hospital bills after birth (truly a WTF experience). Here’s what the process entailed: I had to find a lawyer, meet with her for about half an hour over Zoom, gather all of the financial information she asked for, fill out some documents, meet with her again, and finally haul my sweaty, pregnant self to a law office to sign notarized paperwork in person. My lawyer’s invoice was roughly $1,000, which is about the going rate for a person with a “simple” estate (meaning I’m not a billionaire with multiple homes or complex assets).

I’m telling you this because everyone is much more likely to procrastinate things that seem vague, intimidating, potentially expensive, have no known deadline, or carry unpleasant associations (like, say, one’s own death). One thing you can do to encourage your parents to take these steps is to get familiar with them yourself, says Katrina Robinson, a New York–based attorney and CEO of Teton Trust Company, which helps individuals and families with estate planning.

“Before I set up my own will, I thought I would have to write down a list of everything I owned and decide who was going to get what,” she says. “In fact, I did none of that, because most states simply have preexisting forms that you can fill out and modify, and that serves as your estate plan. It’s not as difficult as many people think.”

In your parents’ case, another part of their resistance could be cultural. “The U.S. is one of very few countries that has a court process to deal with your assets after you die,” says Cindy S. Yau, an attorney who specializes in immigration and estate planning. “In most other countries, there is no probate process at all, so many immigrants are not familiar with it. They believe that they can just give their assets to their children. But it doesn’t quite work that way here.”

Instead, dying without a will in place can have significant financial downsides for whoever inherits your property. Sure, creating a will might seem costly up front, but it often saves money in taxes down the road. “Many clients ask me, ‘Why do I need to have a will? I’ll just add my children’s name to the title of my property, and when I die, it will automatically belong to them,’” says Khan. “This is true, technically, but there’s a tax disadvantage to doing that, among other liabilities.”

So how can you bring up these issues in a way that your parents will hear and respond to? First and foremost, be respectful. “They’re your parents, and they don’t want to be treated as children,” says Robinson. “Treat them with dignity. You can’t make them do anything — this is their choice, and they need to make it willingly.”

You also don’t want to force the topic or dive into the nitty-gritty of tax advantages off the bat. Most people — especially older ones — hate talking about things they don’t fully understand and will disengage if they’re feeling patronized.

Instead, look for natural opportunities to introduce the topic gently, says Elizabeth G. Acevedo, a lawyer who specializes in estate planning at the L.A.-based law firm Weinstock Manion. The situation with your uncle and his children is a great example. She suggests starting with something like, “I know you’re very private about your finances, and I want to respect your wishes, but I’m seeing what’s happening with my uncle and cousins and how complicated that has become. I’m wondering if we could talk about whether you have plans in place if something were to happen to you?” Keep the focus on your parents — this is about them and what they want, not you. “The conversation should not be about who gets what and who benefits — it’s about preserving their legacy,” adds Acevedo. “They’ve put their life’s work into accumulating these assets, and the best way to honor that is by understanding how they want them to be managed and putting something in writing.”

The next step is to find them an attorney. If there’s a lawyer or accountant they already know and trust, that’s a good place to start. That person may be able to make a referral to someone who specializes in estate planning. (I should mention that some people’s assets are simple enough that a will can be drawn up online through a website like Trust & Will or LegalZoom, but it seems like your parents — especially since they have multiple properties — would benefit from an in-person meeting with someone.)

Alternatively, you could interview candidates for them. “Estate planning is such an intimate and personal topic that it’s very important to feel comfortable with the lawyer you’re working with. And the best way to do that is talk to several contenders,” says Acevedo. It’s quite common for her to be approached by a client’s adult children who are trying to help their parents (and themselves) in the same way that you’re doing, she adds. “Sometimes they’ll do the first round of interviewing, then they’ll narrow it down, so their parents can make the final choice.”

Ultimately, you’re all on the same team here, even if your parents make decisions in their will that surprise or disappoint you. “When you say, ‘I want to make sure that I’m doing what you want,’ you have to mean it, which can be the hard part,” says Acevedo. “Sometimes, parents are not going to do exactly what you would want them to. But it’s their choice, and it is always better to have something in writing than no plan at all.”

In my own experience, I found that, once I started the process, I just wanted to get it done. I imagine that “Swedish death cleaning” feels similar. Either way, the point is the same: Planning for the end of your own life is one of the kindest, most loving things you can do for the people you leave behind. And with a little convincing, I imagine your parents will see that too.

The Cut’s financial-advice columnist, Charlotte Cowles, answers readers’ personal questions about personal finance. Email your money conundrums to

‘My Elderly Parents Refuse to Make a Will’