None of us ever want to see our parents start to decline in their mental and physical capabilities. It’s difficult to accept that our aging loved ones won’t be around forever — but that doesn’t give us a pass on discussing financial planning with them. As uncomfortable as this topic might feel, it’s incredibly important to understand your parents’ financial situation so you can help keep them safe at the end of their lives, and prevent difficulty once they’re gone.
“First and foremost, it is important to talk to your parents before cognitive decline [sets in], as not only might information be lost, but there also may be legal issues in accessing accounts and making decisions for them,” says Jay Zigmont, PhD, CFP, and founder of Live, Learn, Plan, a registered investment advisor, based in Mississippi. “Once a parent is in crisis, such as with a stroke, you may be required to go to court to get access to their accounts without a durable power of attorney in place. It is difficult talking to parents about finances, but at a minimum, you need to know what their living will is (or medical directives), who is the designated healthcare proxy (makes decisions for them), and who has a durable power of attorney to make decisions for them if they are incapacitated.”
How do you begin that conversation? According to Amy Goyer, family and caregiving expert for AARP, there’s a right and a wrong way to approach it. “Many people are very uncomfortable discussing finances,” she says. “They may be embarrassed, or they may not want you to think less of them if they haven’t planned well. Be sensitive to their comfort level and think about just breaking the ice at first.”
How to Discuss Financial Planning With Aging Loved Ones
Looking for guidance on this uncomfortable topic? Goyer has eight pieces of advice on how to start this difficult conversation.
- Talk early and often. “The more you’ve discussed and planned for the future, the easier it will be when it is time to make decisions,” she says. “Talk early, because it’s much easier to talk about ‘the future’ and changes that may occur in the distance than to talk when everything is changing, fears are high, or you are in the middle of a crisis. Talk often because the situation can change, especially with finances. Resources can change, expenses can change, and goals, plans, and wishes can change.”
- Do your homework first. “Observe your loved one’s situation and identify areas of concern, talk with other family members, then research the options for how to deal with the areas of concern. It also helps to have specific observations to share when you talk, rather than vast generalizations. And being able to share the options for addressing concerns brings a sense of security. For example, if you want them to stop doing something, explain how you think it could be taken care of by someone else.”
- Start by expressing your love and concern. “Be clear that your thoughts and actions are motivated by your love and your desire to help them be as independent as possible for as long as possible. Be sincere; family members will see through a snow job right away. It’s not about buttering them up for the fall, it’s about honest, caring, clear communication.”
- Don’t be the parent. “Your role is to provide support for them, not take over their lives, and be a ‘parent’ to your parents. Your parents are always your parents, and a respectful approach is best. If you communicate from this vantage point, they will feel less threatened. Don’t make this a power play. Talk about ways you can support their independence, even if it means making some changes. For example, you may not need to completely take over the finances – maybe just help with the more complicated matters at first.
- Brush up on your communication skills. “For example, use ‘I’ statements. Any time you start a sentence with ‘you’ it can put people on the defensive. No one wants to hear, ‘You need to …’ or ‘You just have to …’ Instead, try ‘I am concerned about …’ or ‘I want to help you …’ Always listen, validate their feelings, and honor their wishes. Change is hard, and the ‘unknown’ is the biggest fear for all of us of any age. It’s normal to want to avoid change, so tell them you understand their reluctance, fears, or even anger, and you want to help make change easier for them. Sometimes, they just need acknowledgment that this is hard stuff to deal with.”
- Ask how they think they are doing. “Don’t just dive in with your opinions. Ask for theirs as well. If they say everything is fine as is, express your own concerns. Ask about specifics if it’s hard to get the conversation going. For example, you might ask, “I’m wondering if you ever think about the future and how to plan for a time when you may need more care. I’m wondering about how we will pay for care.” One way to offer help might be to say, “I’d be happy to help you manage some of the paperwork and financial matters. Would a bit of help with a few things ease your stress? “
- Involve the right people in the conversation. “Include trusted family members or, if needed, an objective third party to facilitate the conversation or help talk things through (such as their accountant or financial advisor, or an eldercare mediator). If your parents always take your brother’s advice, be sure he’s there. If they trust their doctor, financial adviser, or lawyer, then arrange for an appointment and go along.”
- Try an indirect approach. “As a more casual conversation starter, talk about a friend dealing with his or her parents’ finances, or how you have recently taken care of creating your own estate planning and power of attorney for finances. Or talk with them about reading this article.”
7 Important Financial Questions to Ask
Now that you have a better idea of how you can ease into these tricky topics, you need to know what sorts of questions to cover. Zigmont suggests seven important subjects.
- Know what and where all your parents’ accounts and funds are. “Ask your parents about all accounts, and work on creating an ‘in case I die’ file,” says Zigmont. Be sure to ask about physical assets and safe deposit boxes as well — but be sure to explain that your goal is to understand their situation, not to “grab their money.”
- Discuss their will. Zigmont suggests asking the following: “Do you have a will? What and where is your living will? Who has durable POA (power of attorney)? Who is the executor?”
- Ask them about their financial advisors. Zigmont recommends asking, “Who do you rely on? Are there lawyers, accountants, or CFP professionals that would be able to help? Would you be comfortable adding me as a “trusted individual” on the accounts?”
- Discuss their plans for their money. “Ask them, ‘what do you want to do with your money?’ In the end, it is their money, and their wishes should be followed as best can be,” Zigmont points out.
- Ask about life insurance. “What life insurance, or the like, is there? Check both the insurance policy and beneficiaries.”
- Discuss their medical situation. Ask, “What are your medical wishes, and who should make them for you?’”
- Address their long-term, end-of-life care, and funeral plans. Topics to cover include whether they want to stay at home as long as possible or go to a nursing home, whether they have long-term care insurance, and what they whether they would like to be buried or cremated. If they have specific wishes for a service or ceremony, ask them to share them with you.
What to Expect From a Financial Planning Discussion
While it may be tempting to try and learn everything all at once, Goyer says these conversations take time. “Generally, there will be many conversations, not just one conversation when you cover everything,” she says. “Have realistic goals for the first conversation. You might also just say you’d really like to be aware of their planning so you can be sure to do what they want … Or if there is a specific financial decision to be discussed, be sure to have several options to layout – hopefully, all of which you can live with.
“Always remember that, if your parents won’t talk about their finances, you can always ask that they tell you with whom you should talk if they should pass on or become incapacitated,” Goyer adds. That might be an accountant, lawyer, or financial advisor.
For more resources on financial planning, check out AARP Family Caregiving, which includes a section on financial and legal matters. AARP also offers a free financial workbook for family caregivers and a financial workbook for veterans and military caregivers, specifically. With the right knowledge, tools, and advice, hopefully you and your parents can build a path forward.