Talking about end-of-life issues means coming to terms with mortality, which can be a serious threat to our ego. But having these conversations is critical to ensuring the best possible outcome for our families and loved ones. Retirement Director Ben Rizzuto offers guidance on how to approach the subject and the specific financial details that should be covered.

As you may know, “Ego Is the Enemy” is the title of a book by Ryan Holiday. It features positive stories and cautionary tales of folks throughout history who have either overcome or been undone by their egos.

Why might our ego be our enemy? Well, consider how many times our ego has gotten us in trouble by telling us we are smarter, in better shape, or better prepared than we may actually be. In the past, the egos of many prominent people have led to bouts of hubris, which in turn has led to the downfall of individuals, teams, plans … even entire civilizations, empires and financial systems. And while we can’t predict when bad things are going to happen, we can at least try keep our egos in check to ensure they don’t lead to our own downfalls.

Ego can also lead to the downfall of wealth transfer plans. There are any number of cases we could point to. My colleague, Marquette Payton, and I recently reviewed how the egos of many led to issues with James Brown’s estate. Or consider King Lear, who we discuss in a one of our educational investor presentations on estate planning. In these cases and many others, someone believed they were better prepared than they actually were or had more time than they actually did.

Coming to Terms with Mortality

This is the case I think we see most often: The client who believes they’ll live forever, only to drop dead the next day. To quote Alanis Morissette, “Isn’t it ironic … don’t you think?”

Consider the fact that 90% of people say that talking with their loved ones about end-of-life care is important. Yet, only 27% have actually done so.1

Why? Most likely it’s because having this conversation means admitting that our life or someone else’s is going to end. But while it may be uncomfortable, avoiding the issue can lead to a lack of organization, a lack of communication with one’s spouse and family members, and ultimately lack of clarity as to the individual’s wishes.

Getting comfortable with the end of life means being able to plan for that eventual end. Without this comfort and preparation, someone’s wealth transfer plan may be like the 70% of plans that fail.2 So how do we help our clients or maybe ourselves, keep our egos in check and get comfortable with the end.

Starting the Conversation

This may be the most difficult part of the equation, but I feel the pandemic may actually provide us with an easier entry point for this conversation. No matter how the experience affected us personally, I think we can all admit that it has brought greater attention to life and death.

Two female collegues having business meeting in high end restaurant with senior client. Multi-ethnic group. High angle view

With that in mind, consider something along these lines as a way to approach the conversation with a loved one: “I was thinking about what happened with many people affected by COVID. They weren’t as prepared as they should have been, and it made me realize we should talk about what you’d like to happen with your finances should something happen.”

Or if you’d prefer a more general start to the conversation, consider trying something direct but reassuring such as, “I know that talking about these things is never easy…” or “We’ve never talked about this before, but …”

If you have a specific example you can share from another experience or client, this always helps make the subject more concrete. Or, use the stat from above (90% of people say that talking with their loved ones about end-of-life care is important but only 27% have actually done so).

Getting into the Details

Once that first egotistical hurdle has been overcome, many people are uncertain about the specific details that need to be communicated or clarified in these conversations. The questions below provide some ideas, and I feel they also serve to highlight how important it is to be talking about the end of life and all the financial issues that go along with it.

How would your spouse manage financially if you should die? What impact would it have on your household income and your expenses?
A main goal of this ego-minimizing exercise is to help someone get out of their head and think about their loved ones. This question helps you realize that you need to ensure that loved ones are able to take care of themselves after you’ve passed away.

Do you know who would get what if one of you dies?
This question might help someone think more deeply about what they truly want their money to stand for or how their choices might affect the recipients. It may also allow you to talk about probate, creating or updating a will, naming beneficiaries and/or retitling assets.

Do you both know where all the important documents such as wills, bank details, insurance policies and so on are kept?
Even if someone has taken the time to plan and create wealth transfer documents, they are useless if the surviving spouse can’t find them!

Would your surviving spouse know how to manage the day-to-day finances? If not, how could he/she start to learn about them now?

Communicating with Family Members

However you decide to approach these conversations, the point is to remind someone that yes, unfortunately, they are going to die. And not only do they need to come to terms with it themselves and with their spouse, but also with their children and other family members.

Teenage girl talking with family at dining table during Christmas festival

Many times, parents won’t want to discuss these issues because they don’t want to be a burden to their children, or they don’t want to upset their relatives. While this is understandable, the best way to respond to this hesitation can be as simple as saying: “If talking about this issue now while you’re still alive is upsetting and a burden, think about how difficult it will be once you’ve died.” Because of this, it’s also important to give clients the words they’ll need to start these conversations with their families.

Some possible conversation starters:

  • “I just answered some questions about how I want the end of my life to be. I want you to see my answers."
  • “Even though I’m OK right now, I want to be prepared. Can we talk about some things that matter to me?”
  • “I need to think about the future. Will you help me?”

Not only do these prompts allow someone to communicate their wishes, but they also help include children in the process. Children often feel powerless when it comes to conversations around wealth transfer or end-of-life issues and being asked these questions can help put them on more equal footing with their parents.

There’s no perfect blueprint for how to start a conversation about dying. We just have to do it – however hard our ego or our gut makes it feel – and know that we will usually feel a lot better after having these difficult conversations and accepting these facts. Plus, it can help put those you love at ease and make a very emotional situation a little easier from a financial standpoint.

If you’re looking for more resources on this subject, a few websites I’ve found to be helpful include:

  • (U.S.)
  • and the National Health Service’s end-of-life care guide (UK)
  • (Australia)

And for additional resources from Janus Henderson, explore our Knowledge Labs® Wealth Transfer program.


1Survey of Californians by the California HealthCare Foundation, 2012.

2FUSE Research Network, 2015; Janus Henderson Retirement Strategy Group.