Addressing your aging parents’ finances is not easy. Trust me, I know. Several years ago when my mom started showing signs of memory loss, I had conversations with her about her finances.
I felt awkward probing my mom about her accounts, income and estate-planning documents, but that small amount of discomfort was worth it. It would’ve been incredibly difficult to get the information I needed to take over her finances as her dementia progressed if I hadn’t had the money talk with her while she was relatively lucid.
I was fortunate that my mom was willing, for the most part, to have these conversations with me. Plenty of older adults don’t want to talk about money with their children. “People hold tight to their bootstraps,” said Gwen Morgan, author of the “What If … Workbook,” a guide that helps people give loved ones necessary information if anything happens to them. “They don’t want to let the information out.”
Even if your parents are resistant, the sooner you talk to them about money the better, said Morgan and other elder-care specialists. Otherwise, it can be very tricky to get the information you need, manage your parents’ money and make decisions for them if a stroke, injury or dementia leaves them unable to handle their finances on their own.
In the worst case scenario, you would have to go to court to get control — and that can destroy families, said Linda Fodrini-Johnson, a family therapist, care manager and founder of Eldercare Services in the San Francisco Bay Area.
How to Start Talking About Your Aging Parents’ Finances
There are several strategies you can use to get your aging parents to open up about their finances. If one doesn’t work, try another. Regardless of which of approach you take, though, the conversation needs to be respectful, Fodrini-Johnson said. And, you should make sure it’s clear you’re not trying to take over your parents’ finances.
“If you start with an area that doesn’t feel like a loss of power,” she said, “you’ll probably be more successful.”
1. Use a story.
One of the best ways to get your parents talking about money is to tell them a story — true or fabricated — about someone who did or didn’t have information about his elderly parents’ finances and the impact it had, said both Morgan and Fodrini-Johnson. For example, you could tell them a friend’s father recently passed away and it was a nightmare for him to clean up his father’s affairs because he didn’t have any information about his dad’s accounts or legal documents.
Then, let your parents know that you don’t want to be in the same situation if something happened to them, and gently suggest that they share some financial information with you.
2. Get help from your siblings.
Fodrini-Johnson also recommends letting the child who has the closest relationship with Mom or Dad start the conversation. Then siblings can join later conversations to discuss specific details about your parents’ money.
“Every family has a different style of communication,” she said. “Some families share this information all their lives. Other times, families don’t have a clue.”
3. Talk about your own situation.
You might be able to get your parents to open up by talking about what you’ve done to get your financial affairs in order, Morgan said. You could mention that you’ve met with an attorney to draft a will or created a list of your accounts and passwords to give to your spouse in case something happens to you. Then you could ask your parents what steps they’ve taken.
4. Discuss your parents’ future.
Asking your parents about a broader topic, such as their plans for retirement, might get them talking more than if you ask them point-blank about money, Fodrini-Johnson said. Questions such as whether they plan to downsize or what sort of care they would like to receive if something happened to them could open the door to a discussion about their finances.
At the least, you might be able to find out what sort of legal documents they have and where they are if you tell them you want to make sure you follow their final wishes if something happens to them.
5. Take an indirect approach.
Morgan said that her father was unwilling to talk about money with her or her brother because he thought they were being greedy. So, she gave him a copy of her “What If … Workbook” so he could write down his financial information without telling her directly. She said she didn’t need to see what he wrote, but he needed to put it in a safe place where she could access it if something happened to him.
“I think having a tool like that is helpful to approach it in a general way,” said Morgan.
Fodrini-Johnson said the National Council on Aging’s BenefitsCheckup.org site can be a good tool that adult children can use to get information from aging or elderly parents. The site can help older adults find out if they’re entitled to benefits that will help them pay for medication, health care, utilities and more.
To find out if your parents qualify, they have to provide details about benefits they’re already receiving, monthly income and household spending. But parents might be more willing to share information if they know it will get them benefits — and you can walk them through the process.
6. Offer to lighten their load.
Ask your parents if there’s something you can help them with or take off their plates so they can have more time to enjoy the things they like doing. Fodrini-Johnson recommends starting with a task not related to money then gradually offering assistance with their finances. You might have the most success offering to help with tax preparation because it’s a task most people don’t like, and it will give you access to important details about your parents’ finances.
7. Get professional help.
If your parents aren’t willing to talk to you, suggest that they meet with an elder law attorney, financial planner or aging life care professional — you can find one through the Aging Life Care Association. Most likely, these professionals will encourage your parents to share important financial information with you, Fodrini-Johnson said.
More Tips on Talking About Elderly Parents’ Finances
If your parents are willing to talk, start with the basics: what sources of income they have, where they bank, whether they still have a mortgage and what types of insurance they have. You’ll need to get contact information for the mortgage company and insurance agents and — if they have one — broker, financial planner and attorney.
Ideally, you should get their Social Security numbers, account numbers and passwords. You could always suggest, as Morgan did with her father, that they write down this information and store it somewhere you could access if necessary, such as a lock box. Also, ask about their medical history and the prescription drugs they take.
Most importantly, find out whether they have a will, living will and power of attorney documents. If they haven’t drafted these legal documents, they need to do so to specify their final wishes and to appoint someone they trust to make health and financial decisions for them if they are unable to themselves. These documents need to be drafted while they have the decision-making ability to do so.