Building Collectivistic Cultural Relevance, Competency for Estate Planning

Hispanic female attorney (50s) advising senior Hispanic woman (70s).

Providing estate planning and end-of-life services to an ailing parent generation, within a culture that does not have tools in place to easily do so, is going to require new strategies and forward thinking about cultural relevance and cultural competency. 

The issue is vast and complex, so I believe a good place to begin is with the hesitancy of many people to move forward with formal estate planning. This is especially true among those who are first-generation immigrants from a collectivistic culture, thereby leading to higher risk that their wishes will not be properly expressed during the end-of-life process. 

Among those from a collectivist family structure, it is not uncommon for an elder to take on the role of a parent or grandparent to someone who is a distant relative or non-relative. Additionally, it is not the norm to go to a nursing facility because it is generally expected that adult children and extended family will take care of elders into old age. However, elderly first-generation immigrants who have raised children within a westernized system may not realize that their adult children and other extended family members do not readily identify with such traditions. 

Navigating such challenges in the estate planning context may involve facilitating an environment to explore dynamics in terms of how the client thinks their loved ones will respond to end-of-life situations, as well as the extent to which their trusted named agent and personal representative will act in accordance with their wishes—which might require finding common ground to achieve their goals in spite of potentially different perspectives. Further, there could be complexities in terms of decision-making, as first-generation immigrant clients might believe that the family unit, which might include their extended community, should make the end-of-life decisions in lieu of themselves.  

In speaking to my Filipino heritage, I recognize that it is a common cultural belief that “God will provide,” and that upon passing, first-generation immigrant elders often believe that relatives will be able to work things out. It is also typical for informality to exist as to the Filipino family unit, as it is common for elders to informally take on a parental role to someone with whom they are not biologically related. Unfortunately, however, I have witnessed how these dynamics often do not play out as intended upon passing because Washington intestate succession laws are often not in accordance with how the elder expects their assets to be distributed. This usually creates substantial conflict and very bad results. 

I believe that culturally competent estate planning involves legal professionals as a conduit to address tensions, together with an education with what happens under the Washington legal system as opposed to how things might be traditionally handled in a person’s home country. I would also call on others from marginalized communities and collectivistic cultures to encourage relevant discussions because this can help spur the process for shifting trends and further serve as a resource to facilitate education about the local legal system.