Advisors take note: Baby Boomers and their parents need to do some serious talking. According to a new study, Americans in their 70s are more at ease talking about estate-planning issues than people in their children's generation are. This is the finding of the latest study in the Hartford, Conn.-based Hartford Financial Services Group's “Family Conversations” survey series.

The survey, released in September, found that 76 percent of the 500 older respondents (aged 70 to 79, with at least $75,000 in assets and one child) said they actually wanted to discuss such topics as their estate planning, medical care and final arrangements with their offspring. Only 45 percent of the 450 Boomers (aged 45 to 65, with at least $75,000 in assets and one living parent) reported feeling at ease having such talks with their parents. The survey was conducted by telephone between May 7 and May 22 by the Washington-based public opinion and research firm Mathew Greenwald & Associates, Inc.

What's behind the generation gap? David Potter, a Hartford spokesperson, says that the survey interviews found “not that the parents are more savvy about these topics, [but] just that Boomers are uncomfortable having conversations that question their own mortality and that of their parents.”

The study also found that the older generation was very interested in helping their children plan financially, and wanted to put their children's needs before their own (three out of every 10 parents said it's very important to them to help their children improve their lifestyle). Yet only one in six of the Boomer generation knew that their parents felt this way.

Neal Cutler, professor of financial gerontology at the School of Human Service Professions, Widener University in Chester, Pa., says “Older people seem to understand that it's not just about passing money down to the next generation, it's also about continuity and love.”

Almost all of the older generation respondents surveyed (91 percent) said they'd spoken with at least one of their children about their estate plan. But only three-quarters of the Boomer generation said they'd had that discussion with their parents.

For many Boomers, even talking about the contents of their wills with their own children is a big deal. Only 54 percent of the Boomer respondents said they were comfortable doing it (as compared to 71 percent of the older generation).

“I haven't noticed any lack of interest or awareness on the part of the Boomers,” says Cutler, “it's mainly a reluctance and an inability to start conversations that might focus on death.”

CONSEQUENCES

The discomfort has some very real consequences. The survey found a greater number of the older respondents (68 percent) have important estate planning documents, such as living wills, than the Boomers (53 percent) do. This was true even after the highly publicized and very bitter end of the Terri Schiavo case, which was resolved after almost a decade of her husband fighting to prove to the courts that, even though his wife didn't have a living will, she'd made it clear that she wouldn't want to be kept alive by feeding tubes. Terri Schiavo was only 27 years old when she suffered a cardiac arrest that damaged her brain and left her in a persistent vegetative state. Her feeding tube was finally ordered removed seven years later. She died on March 31.

The Hartford survey also found that just 53 percent of the Boomers had durable power of attorneys, while 65 percent of their parents' generation did.

Cutler notes that the two generations are unable to even initiate conversations about financial planning. To help get them talking, “estate planning must be separated from ‘dying’ in these conversations,” he notes, adding: “It's much easier when you have the conversation in terms of planning and continuity, and less focused on ‘money’ issues.”