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estate planning tips

.A young hand holding an elderly pair of hands.tyler olson

If you're unsure how to break the ice when talking about death and estate planning, just look to Anna Nicole Smith. She's the perfect example of what can go wrong when plans for an estate are not properly communicated with family.

Even though she died in 2007, Ms. Smith's estate is still embroiled in a legal battle over the $1.6-billion (U.S.) estate of her husband of 13 months, J. Howard Marshall, who died in 1995. Although Ms. Smith claimed Mr. Marshall orally promised her half of his estate if she married him, it was not written in his will. Her estate has yet to inherit any of Mr. Marshall's money. And Ms. Smith's death sparked a legal battle over custody of her infant daughter, Dannielynn, for whom she had not made legal arrangements.

While we're not all former Playboy models or oil tycoons, we'd all like to avoid a family blowup over estate planning.

Lynne Butler, author of the new book Estate Planning Through Family Meetings (without breaking up the family), says the death of a celebrity can be a good way to start the conversation with family.

"People are already talking about them. You don't have to bring it up. When you see a famous person has passed away, all of a sudden everybody's talking about who's going to have custody of the child and who should have custody and why didn't the parents make better arrangements. ... It's really easy to segue into, 'What if that happened to us?' "

Ms. Butler has some specific ideas about how to use what she calls "life event triggers" to start that tricky conversation:

Celebrity estates When a famous person dies, fallout from their failure to plan is splashed across our TV screens. The issues, such as disappointed beneficiaries or disputes over the assets, are the same as they are for the rest of us ordinary folks. Use these celebrity estates as high-profile examples of some of the nasty things that can happen when people fail to plan ahead.

Messy estate of someone you know Many estates end up being ugly, contested messes due to poor will planning, mistakes or simply unclear instructions. It usually isn't difficult to find an example of "what not to do" by looking at family members, neighbours and friends, and to remind our parents that it's easy to avoid that kind of trouble.

Sudden illness If an uncle has a heart attack and is in the hospital, open a conversation about who is directing his health care while he is sick. Then ask your parents who they would want in charge of their health care should this happen to them.

Going into long-term care When someone your parents' age moves into a long-term care facility or moves in with one of his or her children, ask your parents how they feel about the living arrangements. Ask how your family will know your parents' instructions. For almost everyone, this involves a discussion about finances, since the cost of care is an enormous factor.

Funeral Though the funeral of a friend or family member is obviously not a happy occasion, the fact that your parent might be quite aware of his or her own mortality because of it is very useful in motivating them to take action on their own estate planning.

Getting remarried later in life When your parents' friend marries for the second (or third or more) time, the issues surrounding blended families, stepchildren and competing interests take centre stage. Ask your parents what they would do in that person's situation.