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How To Stealthily Gather Important Information From Your Family On Thanksgiving

Time to give thanks for all you have… and do a little recon.

How do you make such a delicious turkey? Can I get this sweet potato recipe? What would you want done if you were in a coma and facing certain death?

One of those questions is not like the others.

It’s Thanksgiving. You’re spending time with family and friends that you may not have seen since this time last year. It’s joyous, festive, maybe a little stressful. You want to talk about regular stuff — work, kids, how is Survivor still on the air? — but it’s also a chance to get answers to some difficult questions.

Here’s a breakdown of the things you need to know:

Let’s face it: These are the type of questions most people don’t want to ask anyone, let alone family. It can lead to immediate discord — and if you’re not delicate in broaching these topics, you’ll be shut down until the next family gathering.

You: Dad, is your Life Insurance policy up-to-date? Dad: Why, do you want to kill me for the money? <laughs> You: <nervous laughter> Um, no, dad, just wondering… Dad: Don’t worry about it… please, pass the stuffing, Debbie Downer.

Luckily, we’re here to help make your Thanksgiving extra productive, and prevent it from turning into a bad sitcom — so follow our advice and you’ll be one step closer to being prepared for the less-happy moments in life.

The Doctor Will See You Now…

The most important topic (and the cause for the most concern among families) may also be the easiest to bring up and get resolved. Yep, all in one (yummy) night.

Your Mission: Get everyone over 18 to fill out an Advance Directive, which is a Living Will and Health Care Proxy rolled into one extremely useful package. (Sound tough? Just bear with us.)

Why You Need It: If someone either falls gravely ill or is severely injured in an accident, this lets you know how they’d like to be treated. Since it comes directly from the person, it eliminates everyone else’s beliefs and opinions. Even yours.

If You Don’t Have It: It could cause a rift in the family that never heals. The next time you meet any medical professional, ask them how much drama they’ve experienced because this simple document wasn’t completed. Then get comfy, because they’ll probably have a lot of stories to share, many of which could keep you up at night.

Action: Most people don’t realize how easy this is. Seriously, it’s this simple:

  1. Go to our State-By-State Advance Directive Page
  2. Find your state and click on it
  3. Click the big orange link on that page to get the form
  4. Print it out
  5. Fill it out
  6. Follow the rules we have on the state page so it’s legal (it usually requires witnesses and maybe notarization)

Of the six steps, five don’t even require you to get up from your chair (unless your printer is across the room, which means you might have to take a short walk). It doesn’t get much easier than that. Most states also require a witness or two, of which there are plenty at Thanksgiving. See where we’re going with this?

A Tip For The Bold: Print out as many as you need, take them along with you, and make it a family activity. Get acquainted with your state’s form in advance so you can help them understand any tricky language. If it has to be notarized, tell them you’ll take care of it after the holiday and mail them each the copy.

Stay The Course

Don’t make this about current or suspected health conditions among anyone in attendance, because that’s how arguments happen. Even though you may have valid concerns over a family member’s lifestyle choices, if you start judging their habits (eating, smoking, drinking, laziness) you’ll get nowhere in your mission.

Instead, keep focusing on the aspect of responsibility. Remind them that none of you would know what to do if an emergency happened. Tell them you’re up at night worrying that you might make the wrong decision and have to live with it for the rest of your life.

Last Resort Tactic: Bring up Terri Schiavo. For those who are unfamiliar with this major event in American history, Schiavo had a full cardiac arrest at the age of 26. After eight years on life support, doctors determined she was in a persistent vegetative state and her husband got a court order to remove her feeding tube.

Her family believed she was still conscious and fought to have it reinserted. For the next seven years they fought in court, and even reached the highest level of government when President George W. Bush signed legislation to keep her alive. The original decision to remove the feeding tube was eventually upheld and she died in 2005.

Regardless of the details, or which side you believe was right, if Mrs. Schiavo had created a Living Will, it could have changed everything. It wouldn’t have been the husband’s word against her family’s. Her word would have been final. But why would a seemingly healthy 26-year-old even consider filling out a document most people think is only for the elderly? Because the world is sometimes a mystery, especially when it comes to health.

Dig Deeper: Advance Directive World

Where There’s A Will…

If you thought dealing with medical decisions was tough, brace yourself. Money and kids can be the ultimate powder keg.

Your Mission: Find out if people in your family have made a Will. If they have, where’s it stored? If they haven't, why not? Don’t get ahead of yourself, you’re not trying to walk away from the Thanksgiving table with a completed Will; you’re gathering info to be used at a later date.

Why You Need It: Two primary reasons.

Reason #1

This isn’t much of a newsflash, but people fight over money. Even family members who love each other and never squabbled in the past are susceptible. Whether the dispute is over a family heirloom, what to do with a home, or straight up cash, things can turn ugly before you know it. [Related Article: 8 Signs Your Family Will Fight Over Your Estate]

Reason #2

Guardianship. If you have underage children, or are caring for a special-needs adult, who would raise or care for them if you weren’t around? It’s very difficult and heartbreaking to think of someone else raising your kids, so approach it from this angle: Is there someone in your family you definitely don’t want raising them? Because, there's a decent chance that’ll be the person the court puts in charge.

If You Don’t Have It: Unless all parties involved are extremely reasonable and understanding, get ready to spend a lot of time in Probate court. When you die without a Will (known as “intestate”) the state will be dividing up your property. This also means they’ll be placing your kids with whomever they think is best. The state has a tough time paving roads. Do you really want to trust them with your kids and money?

Also, take a moment and try to think if there’s one troublemaker in your family who’d feel the need to fight over what they believe is theirs. The person who’d swoop in and try and take control of the situation. Every family’s got one. (If you can’t identify that person, it might be you.)

Action: If you’ve already created a Will, which we strongly encourage for many reasons, bring it up in a playful manner. Say something like: “I’ve finally done my Will, which means I’m now an officially responsible adult.” Then use your triumph as an excuse to ask other people around the table, or relaxing on the couch, if they have created one yet. If they have, tell them that you’re looking for suggestions on where you should store it. This will reveal the location. Bingo!

If you haven’t created a Will yet, mention that you’ve been interested in doing it but didn’t know where to start because it all seems so complicated. There’s almost always someone in the family who’s done it and will be more than willing to offer advice. This could get everyone talking and give you everyone’s views on the subject.

If you find out that someone purposefully doesn’t want to create a Will, find out why. It could be that he or she doesn’t have underage kids and feels that the family doesn't deserve anything if they can't amicably and reasonably come to an agreement over the remaining assets. Regardless of why, at least you know that when that person dies you won’t have to waste time searching for a Will that doesn’t exist.

Stay The Course

This isn’t about net worth, how much inheritance each person in the family will receive, or obtaining a complete inventory of assets. This is all about making sure a Will can be easily located and submitted to Probate as soon as possible so you can begin to settle the estate.

If Deflected: There’s a possibility your family might think you’re fishing for financial information. If anyone says something like “Are you worried about being cut out of the Will?” or “Why are you all of a sudden so interested in this?” use some finesse… and perhaps one of these anecdotes to get the ball rolling:

Anecdote #1 (Location)

Mention that you read a story of a family that couldn’t locate a Will so they had to spend months in court figuring out the estate. After the court named an Executor, they were finally granted access to a safe deposit box and guess what she found? Yep, the Will. By then it was too late. If only their father had kept it in a folder at home, or with an attorney, or had given someone in the family access to the box, he could have saved that family so much trouble and stress.

The goal here is to hammer home the point: If we can’t find your Will after you’re gone, then it’s as if you never did it.

Anecdote #2 (Family Feud)

Say that a friend or co-worker is going through hell because her parents didn’t have a Will and the whole family is fighting over every scrap. Say that if the person who died only wrote out that they wanted everything distributed equally, or distributed however they wanted, they’d be having a happy Thanksgiving right now. Instead, it’s all out war.

Anecdote #3 (Guardianship)

Rather than make this about humans, make it about dogs. Use this uplifting video of a dog who had to survive alone for a year after his owner died.

Luckily, a rescue organization helped the dog, but if the owner only named a Guardian, that poor little pooch wouldn’t have had to suffer so much.

This keeps the conversation away from kids or special-needs adults, but gently touches on Guardianship. From there, you can segue into why naming a Guardian is so important to maintain continuity in a child’s life.

Last Resort Tactic: Change the topic and live to fight another day. You’ve planted the seed and can now approach the people you’re most concerned about privately at a later date to get the information.

Dig Deeper: Wills World

Can I See Proof Of Insurance?

Your Mission: Find out if a family member has an active Life Insurance policy and where it’s stored.

Why You Need It: The payout from a policy is often a lifesaver to help a family stay afloat while they grieve and try to get their lives back on track. Also, if there is no policy, or the policy lapsed, then you won’t be wasting time searching for money that isn’t there.

If You Don’t Have It: Insurance companies don’t spend all day scanning obituaries and sending agents out with bags of money when a client passes. It’s up to you to make the first move and get the process started. Part of that is knowing which company to contact and having the actual policy.

Action: Like you did with Wills, you’re just trying to ascertain if a policy exists. From there, you want to find out the company name and location of documents. Here’s two ways to approach this topic:

If You Have a Policy

Say you recently paid your premium and mention the company you’re working with and the service you receive. This will get others to chime in with who they’ve chosen. Then tell them where you keep the policy in case something happens. You might keep in it in your desk but you’ve been thinking about buying a fire-proof safe or putting it in a safe deposit box. By asking “What’s the smartest way to keep it secure?” you’re opening up the floor for useful suggestions and valuable intel of where they keep theirs. Pretty sneaky, right?

If You Don’t Have a Policy

Say you have coverage through your job but are interested in getting Life Insurance with more benefits and don’t know where to start. You might find out that your Grandpa had a 20-year Term policy that he let lapse after the kids were grown. Or your father bought a Whole-Life policy at a great price when he was young. From there, keep your inquisitive streak alive by asking what company they liked working with and where they kept (or keep) the documents.

Stay The Course

Finding out if someone has Life Insurance isn’t exactly in the danger zone of conversation. Just don’t pry about the value of the policy.

If Deflected: If you’re getting resistance, or someone appears uncomfortable about the topic, change the subject. For all you know, they used to have a policy but had to let it lapse due to financial problems.

Last Resort Tactic: We don’t really see failure as an option here. If a family member has a policy, it’s not really a sensitive subject. If a family member says they don’t have one, your work here is done.

Dig Deeper: Life Insurance World

The Great Beyond…

The absolute wrong approach to this topic: “I love this crispy green bean casserole… speaking of crispy, what are you thoughts about cremation?”

Your Mission: Find out if your family members want to be buried, cremated, donated to science, shot out in space, or whatever else is possible and legal. Also, you need to know if they already purchased plots, and ideally, if they have some form of Funeral Insurance (or perhaps a Totten Trust).

Why You Need It: There are some people who plan their Funeral out well in advance. Then there’s the majority who leave the planning up to the family. Either way is fine as long as your family is aware, especially if they already own a plot (you don’t want to accidentally buy another). Arguing over the final disposition of the body, and the type of funeral ceremony, can create one of those family rifts we’ve been trying to avoid this entire time. Don’t screw it up now!

If You Don’t Know It: Let’s say you think Mom wants to be cremated and scattered in the Grand Canyon, but your brother thinks she wants a traditional Catholic funeral and to be buried at the local cemetery. Those are entirely different things and odds are, neither of you will give up easily. Whoever wins has to live the rest of their life hoping they made the right choice; whoever loses will feel resentment towards the other.

Action: This is where age and experience often has a decisive advantage. Generally, the longer you live, the more loss you experience and you start viewing this as a practical discussion rather than something depressing and unspeakable.

If your family experienced a loss in the past year, or someone mentions a funeral they recently attended, you can seize the opportunity by letting your family know what you want. It might sound strange, but try and keep it light to get other people talking and always speak about it in the distant future.

Hopefully, a family member will break in and say something like “just put me in the ground and move on” or “I want the biggest ceremony this town’s ever seen.” While it might not be an official declaration, it’s on the record and other people in the room now have something to work with when death occurs. “Remember when our Aunt said she wanted a huge funeral… you know, at Thanksgiving that one year…”

Stay The Course

Thanksgiving is a time to be thankful for many things, one of which is still being alive. Death is one of the last topics people want to discuss so don’t be graphic or morbid. This isn’t the time to pull out the iPad and show the family video of a sky burial. (Warning: While it’s a very interesting ceremony, if you look up “sky burial” on YouTube it will ruin your appetite.)

If Deflected: Be honest and say that you’re curious. If you know a family member regularly visits a grave of a loved one, find out what type of flowers they bring. Ask if there are family plots or if making arrangements is a smart thing to do. Talk about how expensive funerals have become (between $7,000-$10,000) and see if that’s an issue. In the past, we’ve covered a bunch of interesting funeral facts and stories to get the ball rolling. Try these:

Anything that gets your family to reveal what’s on their mind and what they might want is a win.

Last Resort Tactic: Don’t press too hard, but definitely revisit this topic when it might be more appropriate. No loving family member wants their death to be a burden on their family, but some might not really be concerned about what’s done with their body after they’re gone. If that’s the case, then at least you know it’ll be up to you and other survivors to make the call.

Dig Deeper: Funeral Planning World

The Password Is...

Whether a family member uses a password manager or a whole bunch of Post-it notes, don’t let their digital accounts slip into a digital void.

Your Mission: Find out where your loved ones keep their important passwords and what they want done with all their digital accounts and services after they’re gone. This includes:

  • Email (Gmail, Outlook, Yahoo, etc…)
  • Social media (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, etc…)
  • Digital Music, Movies, Books (iTunes, Amazon, Netflix, etc…)
  • Photos
  • Video
  • Anything else living in digital form

Why You Need It: Almost everyone’s life has a major digital component and people are still unsure what to do about it after a death. While many states have passed Digital Estate Laws, we’re still at the mercy of each service we use. By leaving behind a list of all the accounts you have, how to access them, and what you want done after you’re gone, you’ll be alleviating a huge burden.

If You Don’t Have It: Some accounts will be deactivated automatically if they go unused for a certain period of time. Others, especially paid services, could keep charging an estate each month or year until they are finally shut down.

In Digital Media Terms

A generation ago we’d easily pass down books, music, movies, and games because they were actual things you could hold in your hand. Now, we pay the same amount for these forms of entertainment but they’re all digital, and most of the rights to those things revert back to the companies upon death.

That massive iTunes music collection you legally purchased is just being rented. Doesn’t seem fair, right? However, if you have the deceased’s account info you can transfer these digital assets, or commandeer the account and use it as your own. It might violate the company’s terms of service, but until they come up with a more reasonable way to pass these legally paid-for items to your kids or loved ones, we’ll have to make do in our own ways.

In Human Terms

How much do you like dealing with customer service reps for anything? It's even more difficult after a death. Companies like Apple, Amazon, Google, and Facebook have to take every measure possible to avoid scams. So you'll have to spend a lot of time on the phone, and provide a lot of verification, and you still might not get access to what you want. Isn’t it better to circumvent all of this strife and just have a list of accounts and how to access them from the account owner? Thought so.

Action: You don’t want family members to start revealing their passwords aloud, but you should find out if they care what happens to their accounts and services when they’re gone.

Tell them how you store your passwords and it could get them talking about where they store theirs. Mention that a study by software security provider McAfee valued digital assets at $35,000 per person. That’s a lot of money and no one wants to see it just evaporate into thin air after they’re gone.

You can also ask them how they expect someone to access their phone, tablet, or computer if they don’t know the password. Mention this story about an iPad loaded with games played by grandchildren was rendered worthless because no one knew how to gain access to it.

Stay The Course

It’s okay to get a bit sidetracked in this area. If you have older relatives who aren’t digitally inclined, you could end up explaining how your favorite digital services work. Some people are intimidated by new technology and could use the help. Not such a bad thing, right?

If Deflected: There’s a chance some family members may have some secrets they’d like to take to the grave. [For more on this topic, check out our articleHow To Eliminate All The Skeletons In Your Closet After You Die.] You don’t want to embarrass anyone on Thanksgiving, so ease up if you sense resistance.

Last Resort Tactic: You don’t need to know every single site a person uses. We suggest you use our massive list of online accounts and services to close after someone dies, identify the ones that matter to you, and focus on those.

Dig Deeper: Digital Estate Planning

Enjoy The Miscellaneous Overview...

Your Mission: Help your family understand how difficult it would be to seamlessly manage general household affairs after an emergency or death. Families often work as a team with divided responsibilities. They need a place to centralize all the duties so if one person is gone, the house can go on.

Why You Need It: How does the mortgage or rent get paid? Who takes care of the utilities like electricity and internet? What’s the name of the company that fixes the water heater? When are you due for a cell phone upgrade?

Everyone’s life is filled with so many disjointed duties that are accomplished out of obligation or routine. We all need a way to relay these tasks to surviving family members, either to transfer services or shut them down.

If You Don’t Have It: We live in an auto-pay era where a person can actually continue paying their bills five years after they die. You shouldn’t need a degree in forensic accounting to know how the bills get paid. You just need it documented somewhere.

Action: Simply ask where your parents keep all their bills. It’s not easy sifting through a filing cabinet of papers, but it’s a start. Print out our helpful Checklist: Documents To Organize And Share to get an idea of what’s required. Just remember to keep it loose, don’t pass judgement, and use some of the examples we mentioned above to get the conversation started.

Dig Deeper: Important Documents World

In Closing...

There’s no way you’re going to be able to gather all the information listed above, so don’t get discouraged if your information gathering comes up short. Pace yourself because this fact finding mission could keep you busy for the next 10 Thanksgivings.

Just pick a few topics that worry you the most and go after those. If you just get one piece of valuable information it’ll be worth it. Also, don’t forget to relax and enjoy the time with your family, have some laughs, and eat way too much.

  • Wills
  • Advance Directive
  • Important Documents
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