The Awkward but Important Conversation You Must Have This Holiday Season

When I was in college, I was already a financial planner in the making. I wondered out loud to my sisters, "Where is Mom going to live when Dad passes away?" My dad had had several heart attacks and other health challenges, and there wasn't a lot of doubt about who was going to go first. But Mom surprised us all by succumbing to a heart attack in her early 60s. She didn't have a will and had never voiced her wishes. 

Not a jolly thought for the holidays, but very apropos. Why? Families usually get together over the holidays, and this provides the perfect opportunity to have "the talk" with Mom and Dad. You may feel like you're well past the point where your parents need to provide you guidance, but in this case, it's a good thing. Here are some of the things I wish we had known. Read on.

Body talk. You may think it's morbid, but some people want to be altruistic to the max. Donating bodies to science or even particular organs to others is commonplace. But unless you know the wishes of your loved one, you may not know what to do. Remember, you want to honor their wishes, not yours. I had no idea what Mom would've wanted. I wish I had.

Box or jar? Not to be flip, but this is such a personal and important decision, and we had no idea what she wanted. I've made it clear to my family: Cremate me and then use part of my life insurance money to take my family and close friends to scatter my remains over the Italian wine country. Whatever the motivation, it's fair for the family to understand their wishes.

What to wear? It doesn't sound like a big deal, but what does anyone want to wear during that last get together? Are there guidelines? Here again, I've made my wishes known: Put me in some of the tiny clothes I wore while in college. Of course, the clothes may have to be, a-hem, loosened, but who would know ... or care? That way, I'll remain a size zero for eternity.

Who's going to sing it, baby? Sounds like a mundane detail, but it's not. I was long divorced when my son's father passed away. Taking care of the details fell to him. He was a young man by then, and I was by his side the entire way. He made very difficult and smart decisions. But when it came to music selection, he had not a clue and came to me. I told him I remembered that his dad once said "I Did It My Way" by Frank Sinatra should be played at his funeral. (And he did, hence the divorce.) The relieved look on my son's heartbroken face made me grateful I could answer that question.

Who gets what? Mom had some pretty things. While we were very civil when it came to divvying up Mom's stuff, I've seen situations that have become civil wars because the kids were left wondering what their parents wanted. Did my mom want her mother's ring to go the oldest or the youngest? We'll never know. In my case, I hope I've avoided this by writing it all down.

As a financial planner, I have all of this kind of stuff spelled out in my will and a so-called letter of instruction, or survivor's guide. See why I don't get invited to many cocktail parties? Conversations often go this way. Believe me, my son and I have had the talk, and now when we get together, we can talk about other things instead.

Views and opinions expressed by members are for informational purposes only and should not be deemed as an endorsement by USAA.

June Walbert is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER practitioner with USAA Financial Planning Services, one of the USAA family of companies.

Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards,, owns the certification marks CFP and CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER in the U.S. which it awards to individuals who successfully complete CFP Board's initial and ongoing certification requirements.

USAA Financial Planning Services is a service mark of USAA that refers to the financial planning services and financial advice provided by USAA Financial Planning Services Insurance Agency, (known as USAA Financial Insurance Company in California, Lic. No. OE36312), a registered investment advisor and insurance agency and its wholly owned subsidiary. USAA Financial Advisors,, a registered broker dealer.

DIDNo.  135985DEC11


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  • Report this Comment On December 22, 2011, at 12:19 PM, Letsgojacks wrote:

    Thank you for such an important article. Both of my parents are alive and in their 70's, and we have talked about a different item each time we've gotten together. It doesn't seem to be as big a project since we only have to decide one item at a time.

    This time, we're talking about equipment from my dad's business. Who gets what and what goes to auction.

    It prepares all of us, and we really think of it as a gift. It makes them feel better and we aren't in the dark at would be a pretty sorrowful time.

  • Report this Comment On December 22, 2011, at 12:34 PM, dragonLZ wrote:

    Graet article. Loved it. Great advice too.

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