Whenever Susan Newman visits an aunt for whom she has power of attorney, a predictable conversation occurs.
"My aunt has all her finances in order, and her things in order," explains Ms. Newman. "She tries to tell me where this is and that is, but I say, 'I don't really want to discuss this.' I can't tell you how many times she's tried to go over it all."
Newman has plenty of company. A study released last week finds a vast communication gap between baby boomers and their parents and relatives on the subject of inheritances and legacies. Although more than two-thirds of those in both generations say they are highly confident about discussing the topic, less than a third have actually done so.
"Most people want to barricade it off," says Newman, a social psychologist who writes about relationships between parents and adult children. "It's really hard to talk about."
Yet these conversations are becoming increasingly important as those in the World War II generation and their offspring, the baby boomers, gear up for what is being billed as the greatest transfer of wealth ever. The Allianz American Legacies Study puts the figure at $25 trillion for all heirs. Already, significant generational differences in attitudes and expectations are emerging.
Nearly 40 percent of those in the older generation say it is very important to pass financial assets or real estate to their children. Only 10 percent of baby boomers feel that way about passing assets to their kids. And only 4 percent of boomers are counting on an inheritance. Longevity is one reason for the diminished expectations. "Because parents are living longer and have new relationships, they're still acting as consumers and spending money on themselves and their new interests in life - vacations, hobbies," says John Mayoue, a family law attorney in Atlanta. "That makes it more imperative for these discussions to begin early if you're the baby boomer expecting an inheritance."
Remarriage is also changing the landscape of wealth transfer. "People who are 50 are seeing their parents remarry," says Mr. Mayoue. "The children come to me and say, 'My father is 72 and he's getting remarried. What does this mean to me? Am I still in the will?' I tell them, 'You'd better go ask him.' "
Although many boomers share Newman's reluctance to discuss these issues, their parents are often even more reticent.
Richard Nummi, a lawyer in Tampa, Fla., has seen firsthand the effects of a failure to communicate. His wife's parents never discussed their estate planning with her. An only child, she assumed she would receive an inheritance. Then her father became disabled and needed care.
"Now that wealth is completely depleted," Mr. Nummi says. "If they had talked to a financial planner 10 to 15 years ago, their circumstances would be completely different" by setting up trusts and shielding assets.
By contrast, he and his parents did talk over their estate. They were able to plan for their later years and protect assets.
Two-thirds of baby boomers in the survey emphasize the importance of receiving instructions on how they should fulfill their parents' last wishes. Carrying out those wishes and distributing personal possessions were five times more likely to be the source of family conflict than the distribution of finances.
"It's easy to divide $50,000 in half," says Ken Dychtwald, president of Age Wave, a research and consulting firm in San Francisco. "But if there's a ring that Mom wore her whole life, it's precious not because of the gem but because of the wearer. How do you divide that in half?"
It's the kind of question Les Kotzer, an estate lawyer, hears daily. Parents who fail to write wills, or who assume that their children will "do the right thing" in sharing the estate, often harm family relationships permanently.
Mr. Kotzer, coauthor of "The Family Fight: Planning to Avoid It," even writes songs on the subject. One begins, "You can't divide a painting on the wall, and you can't share a table in the hall. How do you divide the memories?" He adds, "Some of the greatest fights I see are over the memories."
To minimize these challenges, Mark Zesbaugh, chief executive of Allianz Life, suggests broadening family discussions. Instead of simply focusing on inheritance - the tricky subject of money - he proposes using a more general word, legacies. These include possessions with emotional value and what the study calls non-financial leave-behinds, such as family traditions, stories, and values. This broader context makes sensitive conversations easier for many, he says.
Not all parents want to discuss the topic. Newman says it's a personal decision. "Either discuss it or don't discuss it. Don't just drop little hints, such as, 'Well, maybe I'll leave this picture to you, but your sister likes it too.' "
Most survey respondents plan to distribute their money equally among their children. But "if you have a child who is divorced and has three children, and she's getting no support from her ex- husband, she's going to be far needier than a brother who is well-established in his own thriving business," Newman says.
When the distribution of money is unequal - or when there's considerable wealth - conversations are especially important, financial experts say.
"If parents are not going to be doing equal distribution, it's very important that they talk to their children about it," says Sharon Rich, a financial planner in Belmont, Mass. This avoids surprises later and minimizes possible resentment between children.
For parents with large estates, Newman suggests preparing children. "You don't have to give a dollar amount. But you can tell them, 'Look, you're going to inherit a sizable amount of money and you don't know anything about managing money.' You may want that child to take a course, or you may want to educate your child yourself."
One person not expecting an inheritance is Scott Testa, an entrepreneur near Philadelphia. His wealthy grandparents left no money to his parents, giving away large sums instead. He expects his parents to continue the pattern.
"We've talked about it, and it's been implied," he says. "I'm a better person for it. I love my parents more than anything. I think the best gift they gave me is not giving me any money. I've just seen too many situations where it causes more trouble than it's worth. So I have to give away mine too."
For those who do expect to give or receive assets, Ms. Rich urges communication - now.
"The worst inheritance a family can give is an inheritance that is divisive," she says. "People say, 'Oh yeah, we'll talk about this later.' But we don't always know if there's going to be a later. If you do anything this week, start the conversation with your parents or with your children."