As families gather for the holidays and catch up on what everyone has done this year and what will happen next year, it also poses an opportunity to bring into the conversation something that families don't like to talk about but must - what happens after the death of a family member.

This conversation is especially important for sons and daughters to have with their parents. The simple topic of inquiring about how update a will is or what final wishes are can be weaved into any conversation. It's important to not be direct but rather gently bring it up. One way is to begin with your own final wishes or discuss how you just updated your will and then ask the parent if they have done anything to their estate plan or what they desire to happen after they are gone.

Unfortunately, most families will not have this conversation and when a death happens a door is opened that could cause conflict. Siblings will fight over possessions or blame each other for handling of affairs. Getting together over the holidays can also be a time for getting together over how to handle mom and dad's affairs and inheritance, and then making a written plan in case someone forgets.

Without a will, most of what happens after a death will be settled by the court, causing unneeded delays and costs. The evidence in the need for wills and estate plans rears its head every once in a while when a celebrity dies and their family fight is in the media. For example, when Jimi Hendrix died, family members spent years and millions of dollars fighting over his estate because Hendrix died without a will.

Also discuss with family the need for an attorney to create the will. Ones written without legal counseling have often been disputed or missed important laws. Former Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote his own will but left out important wording that caused his children to dispute it.

You can read more stories of estate planning mistakes and how to make sure you don't make the same mistakes in the book "Trial & Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights!" published this year by Wise Circle Books. Proper estate planning, write the authors, attorneys Danielle B. Mayoras and Andrew W. Mayoras, creates peace of mind, control, justice, fairness and knowledge.

And those are great gifts to have.

Dan Serra is a financial planner with Strategic Financial Planning Inc. in Plano, Texas. E-mail him at or visit his Twitter page at

(c) 2009, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.