How To Have The Death And Money Conversation
14 Apr 2019
It's the easiest thing in the world to ask that people sit down, grab a cuppa and talk about death …But the fact that several major UK charities and institutions are asking all of us to be more open with one another on the subjects of death and money is telling.
If it was so easy to do we’d get it done.
Having liaised with professionals in and around this issue for the better part of two decades, we know it's no cakewalk. Death and money have a complex and often nasty relationship, so bringing the pair out into the open is uncomfortable, awkward, and can cause instant family tension.
So we're here to offer a starter for ten guide, imperfect as it might be, for how to organise and have one of the most awkward, important family conversations you ever will.
What are we doing here?
We're gathering the family in order to figure out what would/ will happen if someone is struck down by critical illness or untimely death. We're here to explore the practical repercussions of catastrophe and the potential financial exposure of surviving family members.
We're here to ask and answer questions such as:
- Who has life insurance and what does it cover?
- Do I have critical illness cover? What does it mean?
- Are there savings and/or a Will in place?
- Are funeral costs covered?
- Is there mortgage protection insurance?
- What happens if I/ you can't work?
- Does anyone have income protection?
- Would there be a lump sum payout?
- What are the kids entitled to?
- What are the terms of all of the above and are there any gaps in the family's cover?
No, no - this is not fun or joyous subject matter. These are dark and unpleasant areas of conversation. We’re heading down this road because, as bad as the chat is, the alternative could be so much worse.
Our recent research suggested that one in four people have been hit financially because a loved one died without a contingency plan. And whether we have a contingency plan or not, nearly half of us haven't briefed the family because we're simply not talking about this stuff.
However, the fact is that it's a prudent and rational conversation to have. Knowing where the family afterwards will stand financially means the stress, destruction and devastation of catastrophe can be contained: it doesn't need to risk the family's future.
So we need to understand who all is involved and what are the gaps in the family safety net. By having this conversation, we can take action to plug any gaps and rest easier.
Yes, fundamentally this is a just in case move, but it's naïve to think these things only happen to other people.
You're having a conversation about death, money and contingency plans. You're having a conversation to find out how protected each member of the family is in the event of X, Y or Z. It's not a chat to take too lightly or to attempt to do on-the-fly.
For reasons we'll get into, it's good to plan your talk in advance and maintain a layer of organisation. No one wants to be caught unprepared and no one wants the actual talk to drag on longer than necessary.
So to focus participants, give them sufficient time to dig out policies and paperwork and to ask raise concerns or clarifying questions well in advance.
TIP: Try to nominate someone for a lead role. With one central person coordinating the conversation, people can have one point of contact to soundboard off in the run-up.
You might be a fly-by-the-seat-of-your pants kind of family, or you might prefer order and structure. Either way, it's best to plan a timeslot well in advance and brief in all those who should be involved so they can bring present an accurate picture of their particulars.
From our research, we realised that many of us who have insurance plans don't necessarily know they have them(!) or the content of them. For many, plans and policies were arranged by employers, or mortgage companies, so there may be unknowns in the mix.
Briefing people in advance means reminding people that, people can not only agree to attend and contribute, they can also prepare their paperwork. Because whether they have policies or not, it’s prudent that folk have time to double check what’s actually in them and what they cover.
TIP: Our research shows that many of us haven't looked at the content of our insurance plans in some time; even as long as five years. So ask participants to go away and try to understand if the theory of what they think is covered matches the reality.
Get family buy in
This might sound a bit like business. But getting individual family members to buy in to what you're doing is important.
We find that people do recognise this is an important conversation to have, provided there's an understanding of who is involved, what will come up, why it's happening and where it should lead.
There's no point in sugar-coating the fact that the content of the conversation will get upsetting, but remember to always keep eyes on the purpose of this talk: it's to ensure a potentially bad situation doesn't escalate and become utterly devastating.
TIP: People need spiritual or philosophical preparation time as much as they might need admin time. So giving family members ample warning is only fair. People need time to prepare and adjust emotionally.
This is an honest conversation designed to set the wheels in motion; to protect the family well into the future. That's what it is. But there are many things it's not: it's not a time to bring up old arguments and it's not a time to fall out.
So set parameters – an agenda if you have to – to keep the conversation on-track. This might all sound a bit clinical, but it's a way to calmly give everyone time and space to talk.
No one wants to be under the weight of this conversation for longer than necessary, and we don't want things to degenerate into a free-for-all. So put measures in place to respect each participant by awarding everyone fair and sufficient time to deliver their particulars to the group.
TIP: One structure might be to give each family member a timeslot where they can, in turn and completely uninterrupted, talk through their finances and contingency plans in their own way. Say each slot is 15 minutes, remember to allocate time for Q&A or discussion at the end of each segment in order to stop interruptions mid-flow.
Understand your whys
This session is essentially you and the family swapping information: you tell me your situation, I tell you mine and we understand what happens in the event of X, Y and Z. It's all for the good, today and tomorrow, of each family member.
Exchanging this info is a great step, but it's really just a first move. The second move is action: taking what you learn to identify what gaps exist in the family's contingency plans, so everyone can play a part in building up the common safety net.
TIP: Remember that the logical next step after this information-swapping portion is looking for answers. This is why the initial briefing is important - if the family understands why, then everyone can buy into next steps and see this talk for what it is: a means to an important end.
Cast someone in the role of mediator
They say that your family members know what buttons to press because, well, they made the buttons.
So when you do come to sit (or stand or lean) for the conversation, it's worth casting someone in the role of mediator. You can elect someone from the family – therefore there's a natural trust factor – but that person could be just as emotionally involved as everyone else. So there are big plus points in asking a professional to step in.
Mediators are trained to steer conversations just like this. Having an outsider in the mix might feel invasive, but in situations like these, having a detached and neutral person facilitate the conversation – and ensure no one ventures off track – can be a healthy, productive, vital resource.
TIP: Anecdotal evidence suggests that in-laws and those who have married into the family can be effective in the mediator role: they are familiar and trusted but have just-enough-distance.
However, family dynamics are different, so choose wisely. Professional and government mediation services are easily available but, as per usual, a word-of-mouth recommendation is worth its weight.
Accept it'll be uncomfortable
The fact is that you're venturing into conversation areas you don't want to think about, let alone give air to. By accepting that the next few hours between you, your mum, dad, siblings – whoever – will be uncomfortable, you can mentally prepare for that fact. Remember, here, that you're all in the same boat.
This probably isn't going to be the most fun Thursday night or Sunday afternoon you've ever spent together. You're talking about the life and death of your nearest and dearest so you'd have to be some kind of robot if this doesn’t hit you in the feels just a little.
There's no one, easy answer to getting round this but an amalgam of our other points - full briefing, having a mediator, setting an agenda and structuring proceedings - will help.
The central thread of having this conversation is that you love each other and want the best. That's why you're here.
TIP: Set the scene. If your family are tea and cake people – or beer and crisps people – then make the setting as familiar as possible. A normal, comfortable setting may pay dividends when you're in the heat of it.
Knowing the parameters of your conversation is good and healthy. But questions will probably arise that you don't necessarily have answers to.
So rather than Googling things on-the-fly and interrupting the flow of the conversation, take notes of all the open questions, gaps in knowledge, and the issues you'll later want to resolve.
Finding solutions to these outstanding questions may involve reading, or it might be a phone call to someone in the legal, insurance or financial world. Answers will be easy enough to come by, so don't stress or spend time when you're in the heat of it. Note it down as an action for later.
TIP: By taking notes, the family can batch all open questions and assign different people to seek resolutions. Make sure every participant has a follow-up action list to maintain that sense of ownership and togetherness.
Take action: make calls
Yep, here it is. The penultimate step and why we started this in the first place.
If you take one action off the back of this conversation, it's to go and seek answers to any outstanding questions. This is done a) to confirm what gaps there are in the family's safety net and b) to plug those gaps.
If someone did take notes of the talk, then perhaps your coordinator can circulate them to ensure everyone is fully in the loop; that there are common facts and a cohesive to-do list.
You might discover that an ageing dad doesn't have critical illness cover, or a 25-year-old graduate wants to explore income protection cover. We'd advise both take their notes and make some phone calls to uncover what products are out there and maybe even get some quotes.
TIP: We're not going to insult your intelligence and suggest that LifeSearch is the only place to go and get said advice or quotes – other companies do what we do – but we'd ask you put us somewhere on your call list.
Because we're a broker we work with a range of insurers. That means we can work with people of all backgrounds and circumstances – even if there are longstanding health issues – to understand what kind of cover is possible. At the very least we'll always give you an answer to questions you might have.
Reconvene and tie a bow
As human beings we mostly work best to named deadlines. With the help of your nominated organiser, coordinate a date for a family follow-up.
This second meeting doesn't need to be as intense, but if all parties can bring their answers to outstanding questions then maybe, just maybe, this is one family that can soon tie a bow on the dark matter of death.
TIP: For what it's worth, we suggest having some sort of celebration – your family has succeeded where most others haven't. You had the awkward death/ money chat and there are now, hopefully, few questions left on the topic of what will be if the unthinkable happens.
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