The tough conversation you need to have this Christmas


If you asked my 94-year-old grandpa what his best piece of advice to the young would be, he'd tell you 'don't get old'. He feels like it was just yesterday that he was 40.

I'm sure when he was 40 that he never thought about what life would be like in his 90s, what care and financial support he might need, and who would provide it.

Being fit and healthy, there were certainly no family conversations about the matter. Fast forward over half a century, and his 64-year-old daughter is his full-time live-in carer - a role she probably didn't anticipate would be part of her own retirement.

tough conversations to have at christmas estate planning

The pressures of caring for loved ones

When it comes to caring for ageing relatives, there is often a lot of compromise in relation to lifestyle, finances, and retirement plans.

Income may reduce if you cut down working hours to fulfil a carer role, and taking time out of the workforce later in life can make it difficult to re-enter the workforce.

Also, love and dedication aside - don't underestimate the emotional pressure of being someone's carer.

Even if you're not personally providing care, often it's adult children who end up responsible for making arrangements when Mum or Dad's health or mobility deteriorate to a point.

Sometimes there's a financial responsibility involved. Other times, it's organising professional care and services.

The reality is that in many families, there can be tension, disagreement, and conflicts of interest when significant decisions need to be made as a family.

This can be especially complicated if Mum or Dad haven't expressed their wishes or implemented Enduring Powers of Attorney so that someone is legally authorised to make decisions, all at a time of great emotion.

The good news is life's twists and turns don't have to take you by surprise.

The conversations you can't afford to put off

As we approach the festive season, we often reflect on the year that was.

However, it's also a good time to look forward with our loved ones and plan for the future. These conversations can be difficult as we are forced to face our own mortality and the mortality of those dearest to us. We often put off these conversations for this reason.

While Pa's advice not to get old is guidance that we all wish we could heed, the reality is whether we like it or not, those we love will age.

And, with many families gathering for the holiday season, taking the time to have those uncomfortable conversations today could save you a lot of heartache down the track.

The benefits of planning

Waiting until the need for care arises to broach these topics can mean that important decisions need to be made quickly. This could impact the range of options available, while also creating unnecessary pressure.

Not to mention that waiting until your own golden years have arrived to find out your retirement plans need to accommodate caring for or financially supporting a loved one is not setting yourself up for success.

Many of the things that keep us awake at night are not the things that we do know, but the things we don't: the conversations we haven't had, the plans we haven't made, the costs we aren't sure about.

Knowing what the options are, what support services are available both at home and in terms of aged care homes, and who to contact to initiate the application process are all things that can be considered and even planned in advance.

Planning can also provide control and choice, as well as time to optimise other outcomes related to managing certain aged care fees, maintaining social security entitlements, and ensuring that legally, there is someone that you trust who is legally empowered to make important decisions and arrangements.

Early preparation and conversations can optimise all of these outcomes, while also minimising the burden on family and key decision makers.

The risks of leaving planning until our older years

When it comes to formal care options (such as home care services or full time care in a residential aged care home or nursing home) there are often wait lists. Sometimes where a need for care or support is urgent, there simply won't be time to wait, and this can impact choice.

It's estimated that more than 400,000 Australians are living with dementia, and this number is expected to more than double over the next 30 years.

Once mental and legal capacity is lost, it's not possible to make or change a Will or implement an Enduring Power of Attorney.

It's not just dementia that we need to be prepared for - a sudden traumatic event, such as an accident, stroke or other health episode could mean someone will need to step in and make health, lifestyle and financial decisions and arrangements on behalf of that person.

As we age, there can be a lot of changes taking place with far-reaching consequences. If the right plans haven't been put in place and the right conversations not had in advance, it can have significant emotional, financial, and legal consequences for all involved. For example:

  • Seeking formal financial advice on behalf of someone else will require the person to have an Enduring Power of Attorney in place.
  • If assets are sold when someone moves into care, including to pay aged care fees, this can impact the person's Will and estate planning wishes, and if they don't have legal capacity, their Will cannot be updated to reflect any change of circumstances.
  • To make banking, investment or superannuation transactions, or to make enquiries to certain Government bodies and other organisations (such as Centrelink and utility providers) on the person's behalf, you'll need to be an Enduring Power of Attorney or in some cases, have an authority to enquire or act on the person's behalf.
  • If a lump sum aged care fee (also often referred to as a 'bond' or 'refundable accommodation deposit') is paid by a family member to an aged care home of behalf of someone else, that amount is actually refunded to the person's estate (not to the person who paid the fee) if the person passes away.

The important homework

Even though we can't say what the future will look like for us and our loved ones, being prepared and making the right arrangements can provide peace of mind.

My challenge to you ahead of family gatherings across the festive season, is to spend some time reflecting on what this could mean for you and your loved ones.

What do you see when you look into the future? How's Mum and Dad's health and mobility and what changes do you anticipate to their circumstances over the coming years? Who in your family plays the role of decision maker and what legal arrangements are in place to support that?

Make a commitment to yourself to pour a glass of wine, a cuppa, or cook a special family dinner, and start these conversations with your family.

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Jenneke Mills is the head of technical services at MLC. Prior to this role, she worked as a financial adviser with NAB. Jenneke's areas of expertise include superannuation, self-managed super, retirement and estate planning, taxation, social security, and aged care. She has a Bachelor of Commerce from the University of Wollongong.
Kathryn Watt
December 14, 2023 6.48am

Many thanks for an excellent article, with a wonderful balance of empathy, common sense and clearly explained technical points. The earlier these conversations happen the better.

Penny Rizgalla
December 15, 2023 1.03pm

Well said and I think we all have relatable circumstances where that lack of planning and real conversation results in tension, and adversity at a time where loved ones need comfort and peace more than ever.

Jeannie van Raay
December 18, 2023 2.15pm

Great article Jenneke