Why You Need to Ask Your Parents: "What's your estate plan?"

Do you have any idea what your parents' estate plan is? Do you know if they even have one? Unfortunately, when a parent passes away, you as their child most likely have an obligation to close their estate and finalize their financials. Below is a list of questions you should go to your parents with and have them answer. Start having these conversations now to understand the role you will play in finalizing their estate.

1. Do you have an Estate plan in place?

If the answer is yes, what documents do they have and where are they located? The four most common documents are; a Will, Trust, and Durable Power of Attorney (DPOA) for Finances and Healthcare. Once you know what documents they have, ask to review them and make sure you understand their wishes for burial and the division of their assets. Encourage your parents to meet with an estate planning attorney as soon as possible to create a plan if they do not have one. Having these documents allows you to be able to take legal action without having to go to court to get appointed.

2. What am I required to do?

Read the documents they have. Are you a successor trustee of the Trust? The Agent on a Healthcare or Financial DPOA? What roles will you play and who will play the others? Discuss with other siblings or named agents, whom you will have to co-sign or make co-decisions with, about working together or separately. Having to make decisions jointly can slow down the process, especially if co-signers live in different cities or states. It can be better to separate some tasks between siblings based on individual skills. If you are good at handling financials, you could take the job of Agent on the DPOA for Finances. If you and your siblings decide there are decisions and tasks you cannot handle, ask your parents to delegate the work to an estate or trust company. Companies offer this service, for a fee, but it can be worth it if the tasks seem too overwhelming.

3. Where are the other important documents?

You will need to know the location of important documents. In the house? A safety deposit box? In the cloud? Know where to find items such as: - Tax returns and income statements (examples include W-2, 1099, K-1) - Social Security cards and birth certificates - Titles to homes, cars, boats, trailers and any other motor vehicles - A balance sheet or list of assets and debts - A list of beneficiary designations for retirement accounts, life insurance, and pension plans Also, if your parents manage their bank accounts, investment accounts, and credit cards online, make sure you know where to access logins and passwords when the time comes. You can use a family password manager such as 1password to share these safely on an encrypted server. Having these documents and passwords easily accessible after a passing makes the process go much quicker than having to contact all the individual companies for duplicate copies.

4. What items are important for me to keep and what is of actual value?

Do your parents have family heirlooms that have been passed down for generations or a collection they want to make sure you keep? Find out what physical items your parents want you to hold onto. Ask if they have specific pieces they would want you to sell, donate, or gift to someone else in your family. Also, have your parents tell you the location of collections and obtain an inventory list of the collectibles and their approximate value. You can always have an appraiser come to look at items before or after a parent's passing to make sure you don't throw out something of value.

5. What are your digital assets?

In this digital age, we have collected more than just physical things. We also have to plan for our Digital Assets. What do they want you to do with their cell phone's data like pictures and messages? Would they want you to keep their Facebook or social media accounts open? Electronics like computers and cell phones host a massive amount of data that either needs to be distributed or deleted upon a person's passing. Airline miles or credit card points are good examples of other valuable digital assets*. Ask your parents to maintain a digital asset inventory list.

6. Who am I supposed to contact?

Your parents probably have financial professionals who will have access to some important documents and could help you through different aspects of the process. Ask your parents to write out a list of professionals they have a good relationship with and who you should call if you need help. Professionals could include: - Financial planner/Investment Manager - CPA/Accountant - Lawyers - Insurance agents - Real estate agents Being prepared saves you time, money, and stress. Schedule a family meeting when your parents turn 60 and at least every five years after to revisit any new changes to the plan.

While this is not a fun conversation to have, and you may get pushback from your parents to have it, remind them that no one wants to have this conversation, but it is one that needs to happen. It is a challenging period after a loved one passes and consecutively trying to discover the answer to these essential financial and estate planning questions only makes it more difficult. We never know when someone will pass, and for that reason, it is never too early to plan.

This article contains general advice. We are not attorneys and are not giving legal advice. Always review your plans with your estate planning attorney.

*You can read more about digital assets in our previous blog post.

Ask Linda: Gifting Stock to my Child

Dear Linda, I am a widow and want to gift some of the individual, concentrated stock in my brokerage account to my only child, my adult son. I am tired of managing the stock and feeling like I need to stay on top of the earnings reports, news, etc. I would rather gift it to him and have the rest of my portfolio in low-cost, diversified positions. The stock has a very low basis and will incur a large amount of long-term capital gains upon selling. What are your thoughts? Sincerely, Generous Mom

Dear Generous Mom,

Here are a couple options:

Option 1 - Gift the asset: If your son were to receive the stock as a gift, he would also receive your cost basis (purchase price plus other costs like commissions and fees). Therefore, when he goes to sell it, he will also owe a large amount of capital gains. This would meet your objective of getting rid of the concentrated position, which you presumably don't need to fund your spending needs, but it may not be the most tax-efficient strategy.

Option 2 - Bequeath the asset: If your son were to inherit the stock upon your passing, he would receive a step-up in basis. That means the cost basis of the asset would equal the fair market value at the date of your death. In other words, if he waits and inherits the stock, he can turn around and sell it upon your passing with minimal, if any, taxes due and invest the proceeds in a diversified portfolio.

Conduct a thorough analysis of option 1 & 2 with your financial and tax advisor to confirm which strategy makes the most sense given you and your son's ages, health situation, tax rates, the stock value and the unrealized gain. You should also include an estate planning attorney in the discussion to see if there are any estate or gift tax issues. For example, there is an annual, per recipient gifting limit ($15K for individuals in 2018) and an estate tax exemption ($11.2M for individuals in 2018).

If you decide Option 2 is the best choice, speak with your financial planner about other ways to help reduce your concentration in the stock. Here are some examples:

1) Stop re-investing interest and dividends so you do not further the concentration issue.

2) Consider donating some of the highly appreciated stock instead of cash. The potential charitable deduction would be equal to the fair market value of the stock and an IRS qualified charity can sell the asset without having to pay tax on the gain.

3) Harvest losses elsewhere in your portfolio to offset the capital gains realized when selling some of the highly appreciated stock.

Have a question that relates to financial or tax planning? Ask Linda.

Advice for All Stages

Recent Graduates / Early Career
Typically in your 20's

Cash Flow: 

  • Allocate at least 20% of your gross income to long-term savings and / or paying off debt.  Now is the time to get money invested so it can compound.
  • Start identifying spending habits and patterns by creating a budget or trying out the WholeWallet30.

Tax Planning: 

  • For many during this stage, it makes sense to save to a Roth versus pre-tax retirement vehicle since starting salaries tend to be lower than in mid / late career.  


  • Invest in extra schooling now if you think you will need it.  Life has a way of getting more complicated, making it harder to go back to school down the road.
  • Educate yourself on how to invest.  Read financial blogs and whitepapers or hire a fee-only financial planning professional to make sure you get started on the right path.  


  • Make sure you obtain renter's insurance if you are renting an apartment.  
  • Obtain disability insurance.

Estate Planning:

  • Create at least an advanced health care directive, power of attorney financial and will.  You may not even have to visit an attorney if your situation is simple enough.
Early - Mid Career
Typically in your 30-40's

Cash Flow: 

  • You may feel overwhelmed during this time, whether it is from having young children or working long hours as you move up the corporate ladder.  Start outsourcing.  For example, pay a house cleaner or someone to help with the garden, even if you won't do this forever.  You need to survive this "crunch time" without sacrificing personal relationships and your work performance.
  • Resist trying to live a lifestyle you cannot afford.  Many people work for decades before being able to take annual trips to Europe or eat at expensive restaurants.  Bgrateful for what you have accomplished so far, and focus on living within your means.

Tax Planning: 

  • Make sure you are taking advantage of your employee benefits (many of which have tax benefits). 
  • If you are self-employed, look at your tax-deferred benefits with a fee-only financial planner or your tax professional.  


  • Stay on top of your portfolio.  Re-allocate at least annually and make sure you are investing new savings (versus forgetting about it and leaving it in cash).  


  • Revisit life insurance.  You likely need more coverage now than when you were in your 20's, especially if you have someone who is dependent on your income.

Estate Planning:

  • It is likely a good time to meet with an attorney now and update your estate planning documents. Together, you can decide if it makes sense to create a living Trust.
Mid / Late Career
Typically in your 40-50's

Cash Flow: 

  • Continue to track household expenses.  
  • Calculate if you are on track for retirement.  If not, adjust your savings strategy now before it is too late to change course and you end up working longer than desired.

Tax Planning: 

  • You may find it makes more sense to save to pre-tax retirement accounts versus Roth accounts now as your income rises.  Do an analysis on your current and projected retirement tax bracket.


  • See if it makes sense to get long-term care insurance at this time or if you want to plan on self-insuring.
  • Revisit liability insurance.  You have likely done a good job of accumulating assets - now make sure they are protected.

 Estate Planning: 

  • If you find yourself getting married, divorced, or re-married, engage an attorney to be clear on separate versus community property.  
  • Have your estate planning documents reviewed every 5 years to account for changes to the tax code
  • Check your beneficiaries and the titling of your accounts to make sure they are in line with your intent.

Family Finances: 

  • Teach money skills to children, nieces and nephews.  Involve them in the financial decisions you are making, such as whether to refinance a loan, or have them attend a meeting with your financial advisor.  
Retirement / Financially Independent
Typically in your 60's+

Cash Flow:  

  • As you move into retirement, conduct an analysis to determine when you should begin taking social security benefits.
  • Develop a portfolio distribution strategy.

Tax Planning:  

  • See if it makes sense to do Roth conversions between the period you retire and the year you receive social security income.


  • Outsource financial planning and investment management now if you haven't already.  The risk for dementia increases as you age.  You want to have a plan in place before this happens.
  • Explore the opportunities afforded to seniors in your area for free or inexpensive learning. For example, in the San Diego area, there is Osher Institute and Oasis.


  • Create your aging plan.  Decide if you want to age in place or make some modifications to your home to make it more livable.

Estate Planning:

  • Communicate your wishes to your family in the event something happens to you.
  • Notify family where they can find your estate planning documents, safe deposit box key, or anything else that is pertinent.
  • Don't forget about your "digital" estate plan. Make sure usernames and passwords are safely stored and available for family members that may need them.

Planning Ahead - Estate Concerns

Dear Linda, My father was recently diagnosed with a serious progressive illness. After the initial shock, my siblings and I feel this is a good time to make sure his finances are in order, particularly with regards to estate planning. What do you recommend?

Dear Reader,

Have your father meet with an estate planning attorney licensed in his state. This type of lawyer specializes in making sure a client's wishes, with regards to one's finances, are met in the event of a disability or death. The attorney will prepare some, or all, of the following:

- Living Will - This names someone to act on his behalf if he can no longer make his own medical decisions. - Durable Power of Attorney Financial - This names someone to manage his finances if he can no longer do it on his own due to a disability. - Will - This document outlines how he wants to distribute his assets upon his death. - Living Trust - This is a separate legal entity that can ensure assets do not pass through probate.

Other things you can do:

- Help your father inventory his assets and debts to make sure they are titled properly. - Have him generate the beneficiary designations on all life insurance and retirement accounts to confirm the named beneficiary is accurate.

Digital Estate Planning

A client shared this interesting article & video recently.  It is the story of a man whose mother passed away.  Subsequently, he spent 20 hours trying to locate her various online accounts to appropriately shut them down or to gain access to her online assets, such as airline miles. Many of us have a plan for our traditional assets in the event of our passing.  What about digital assets? We tend to disregard or forget about these.  Examples of digital assets include emails, texts, airline miles, music files, and photos.  Ideally, these accounts should be closed after someone passes to prevent the chance the deceased might become a victim of identity theft.  Anything of value should be distributed according to the deceased owner's wishes.

In practice, most deceased don't have information on their digital assets in writing.  Their beneficiaries are left trying to piece together what clues they can find and, in many cases, never get all the answers.  There is some hope that state legislation will help improve the situation, but as it is, only seven states have legislation regarding digital assets in place.

Consider the following tips:

(1) Create an inventory of your digital accounts along with the username, password and email addresses associated with the accounts.

(2) Stipulate what you want your beneficiaries to do with each account, if you were to pass, and whether or not there is anything of value associated with the account.

(3) Prioritize the list.

(4) Read the terms of use agreement for each site.  For example, I did not know that my Gmail account would be deleted automatically after 3 months of inactivity.  I now know that I can adjust that time period if I prefer more time. There are also other options I can choose such as having an email sent to my family making them aware of my account and that it has been inactive.

(5) Speak with your estate planning attorney to make sure everything is coordinated with their processes and procedures.

Source:  Bissett, William and Andrew W. Blair.  "Planning Implications of New Legislation for Digital Assets".  Journal of Financial Planning.  (December 2014): 23-24. Print.

Advisor Spotlight: Kylie Fletcher

Ms. Fletcher is the Founder and Principal Attorney at Fletcher Law in San Diego. She serves clients throughout California in the area of Estate Planning. I recently had Kylie answer some frequently asked questions. Linda Rogers: What is the biggest mistake that families with young children make with regards to their Estate Planning?

Kylie Fletcher: Often, young parents avoid estate planning because they believe that they are young and healthy and need not be concerned yet. Sometimes, they feel they can’t afford an attorney. However, estate planning is a vital part of caring for your young child. Doing nothing can be a very serious and costly mistake. 
The most important part of an estate plan for young parents is naming a guardian for their children. The guardian is the person who will care for the children who have not reached the age of majority before both parents die. Select someone you trust to raise your children and determine if that person is agreeable before finalizing your will. When selecting a guardian, consider the age of the person and whether they will be able to provide adequate care. Name a secondary guardian in the event that the primary guardian is unable or unwilling to serve.

Linda Rogers: For children under 18, do you recommend a Trust be listed as the contingent beneficiary (assuming the primary beneficiary is the spouse) as opposed to the children themselves?

Kylie Fletcher: Yes. If the child is still a minor when the parent dies, the court will usually get involved, especially if the inheritance is significant. Minor children can be on a title, but they cannot conduct business in their own names. When the owner’s signature is required to make a sale, refinance or transact other business, the court will have to get involved to protect the child’s interests. When the court is involved things move slowly and can become very expensive. Every expense must be documented, audited and approved by the court and an Attorney will need to represent the child.

If you establish a Trust as the contingent beneficiary, a person you select, not the court, will be able to manage the inheritance for your minor children until they reach the age(s) that you determine. A Trust can accommodate each child’s needs and circumstances and protect your children’s inheritance from the courts, irresponsible spending and creditors (even divorce proceedings).

Linda Rogers: Can you give us examples of plans that you have seen parents use to stipulate how children will receive an inheritance upon their passing?

Kylie Fletcher: Often parents worry about leaving money to their children. They want their children to have enough to do whatever they wish, but not so much that they will be lazy and unproductive. Therefore, parents who create estate plans usually create a Trust to hold assets for their children. Below are two very common planning options:

Option #1: Lump Sum

Parents will create a Trust to hold assets for children until they reach a certain age. Once the child reaches a designated age (usually 25, 30 or 35 years old) he or she will receive a lump sum payment.

Option #2: Installments

Many parents like to give their children more than one opportunity to invest or use the inheritance wisely, which doesn’t always happen the first time around. Installments can be made at certain intervals (say, one-third upon your death, one-third five years later, and the final third five years after that) or at certain ages (say, age 25, age 30 and age 35).

To learn more, Fletcher Law is hosting a Special Needs and General Needs Seminar on Sunday, November 10th from 9:30am to 11:00am at Pump It Up in Sorrento Valley. Child Care will be provided. Contact Kylie if you are interested in attending.