COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | PEGGY EDDY

Time for a family meeting?

Within the context of a family business, the words “family meeting” normally refer to scheduled gatherings of family business shareholders, their spouses, siblings and children to discuss topics that affect the family enterprise, including ownership-succession planning.

However, with longer life spans for folks in their 80s and the aging of baby boomers, more than just family business owners should be huddling to discuss important topics.

Even if the caregiving strategy has been mapped out and even if the senior generation is enjoying independent living in a congregate care community, getting together before a crisis occurs is highly recommended.

Rather than waiting to react under stress to health or financial problems, wise families are meeting earlier in their parents’ lives to address physical/mental health care plans, as well as to discuss important financial planning topics.

When does a family get together to address these topics? Usually there will be a clue or two. The parent might begin to sound a little forgetful on the phone or during in-person visits. A family friend might mention that the parent was talking about dealing with someone they thought was from their bank over the phone or mail is left out unopened. Sometimes, a parent will just simply ask a child to take over their finances for them, or mention that they are feeling overwhelmed.

These are the steps to take when it becomes apparent that there are issues to address for the senior generation:

Schedule an all-hands meeting

Usually, one child will take the lead or already be the primary contact with the parents, especially if they live in the parents’ same town. This child should invite all of their siblings to get together with them and the parents.

With family members living in various parts of the U.S., finding a date when everyone can get together is the first challenge. However, the goal is to be inclusive. Keep working on matching calendars until everyone can come at one time.

If the parents are still healthy, the best place in which to hold the meeting is a conference room either in the retirement facility or in a nearby hotel, so food can be provided and there is plenty of privacy.

It is best not to have a family meeting during holiday gatherings. Holiday family gatherings can be stressful enough without adding health and financial challenges to the mix. As the senior generation’s professional advisers also need to be present, it’s difficult to schedule them over holiday periods. The objective is to get everyone on the same page and set up a way to continue to keep everyone in the loop as time unfolds.

Invite professional advisers

As family meetings usually convene after breakfast and conclude with dinner, be sure that the parents’ estate-planning attorney, insurance agent and financial planner can clear their calendars to be with the family all day. For some families, having the primary-care physician present is also very valuable.

Although the professional fees can be substantial, making sure that the wills, trusts, durable powers of attorney, health care directives, and other legal documents are current and signed is critical. It also is less expensive to double-check on these documents ahead of time and not have to deal with postmortem planning that involves looking for these items.

Also, knowing what insurance coverage is in place, how long-term care coverage works, how funds are invested and what cash flow is needed now and in future years is extremely important. For example, at this meeting, it will be discussed whether any of the children will need to help financially or physically support the long-term care needs of either parent or if the parents have sufficient assets and insurance to take care of this major expense.

Develop an agenda

If both parents are healthy and capable, let them set the family meeting agenda. As Lucille Deutsch, a geriatric-care manager in New Jersey, said, “No one has the right to tell anyone else what to do. Our parents have decades of life experience that deserve to be valued and respected, and we shouldn’t treat them like children.”

Before it is finalized, an initial agenda can be circulated to family members and to the professional advisors for any additions or comments. A family member should also be designated to take minutes of the meeting and be responsible for promptly circulating them after the meeting.

Allow discussion

Once everyone is gathered, give everyone a chance to be heard. The Family Caregiver Alliance, based in San Francisco, recommends talking about the latest doctor’s reports, fears about illness and caregiving, how long a parent is able to remain in his or her own home, daily caregiving needs, financial concerns, who is named in legal documents to make decisions about finances and medical treatment and what support role each family member should have and what support the primary caretaker might need.

For example, the child living closest to the parent may be able to be the primary caregiver; a child who lives out of state could handle the finances and another child could be responsible for researching a condition or disease and sharing information about potential treatments and therapies.

Referee?

If the family usually has problems communicating, it is a good idea to secure the services of either a mediator, such as a geriatric-care manager, elder-law attorney or other professional, who has expertise in working through family tensions. A good approach is to interview several mediators before making a selection.

Conclude the meeting with a nice dinner and some relaxing conversation. Confining the “planning talk” to the meeting setting will give everyone a chance to socialize and not continue to focus on topics that should have been thoroughly vetted earlier in the day.

If needed, schedule a follow-up meeting, either by conference call, Skype or in person as soon as possible.

By being proactive in addressing the physical, mental and financial ramifications of aging, families can be better prepared for life’s events. And, by meeting as a family, communication can improve and everyone’s peace of mind can be enhanced.

Is it time for your family to huddle?

Eddy, CFP, is president of San Diego-based Creative Capital Management Inc. and co-founder of the Family Business Forum at USD. She can be reached at peggy.eddy@sddt.com. Comments may be published as Letters to the Editor.

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