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How to talk to your aging parents about their finances

Take these three steps to have productive conversations with your aging parents about their financial situation and long-term care.

When it comes to having money talks with their parents, most adult children are taking a wait-and-see approach.

Seventy-three percent of adults have not had detailed conversations with their parents about their parents’ finances, according to a recent GOBankingRates survey. More than half of people surveyed think the conversation doesn’t need to happen until their parents start to have health issues, show signs they need help or actually ask for help.

I know this struggle first hand because I had to step in and start managing my mom’s finances after she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. One of my biggest regrets is that I didn’t have money talks with my mom before she started having memory problems.

There are plenty of adult children who will find themselves in a situation similar to mine. One of the largest generations in U.S. history – the baby boomers – is facing a host of issues that could force their children to become actively involved in their financial lives:

  • Nearly half of boomers haven’t saved anything for retirement, according to a survey by the Insured Retirement Institute. Although most parents don’t want to be a burden on their kids, they might have no choice but to ask for some financial support from their children.
  • Financial decision-making ability does decline with age, according to the Center for Retirement Research. As the nearly 75 million baby boomers age, their children will likely have to help ensure they make financially sound decisions.
  • As people age, the risk of developing chronic health conditions increases – which could lead to increased medical costs and a need for support from family members.
  • As people age, they’re more likely to need long-term care. In fact, most Americans turning 65 will need long-term care at some point, according to the Administration on Aging.

All of this means that a growing number of children might have to help provide support for their parents but might not be prepared to do so if they haven’t had essential financial conversations with their parents. So how do you actually start the conversation? And what information do you need to gather?

Take these three steps to have productive conversations with your aging parents about their finances.

Get over your fears about talking about money

The GOBankingRates survey found that one of the common reasons why adult children haven’t had money talks with their parents is because they’re afraid to bring up the topic. That’s understandable, considering that money often is considered a taboo topic.

However, there’s a good chance that your fear of how your parents will respond to the conversation is worse than what their actual reaction will be. Your parents likely won’t think you’re being nosy or greedy by asking them for details about their finances if you make it clear that you want to gather information so you’ll be prepared in case they ever need your help as they age.

The key is to let your parents know that you want to have money talks because you’re looking out for their best interests – not your own. The conversations aren’t about finding out what you might inherit someday. The talks are about making sure your parents have legal documents that put their wishes in writing, that they have enough for a comfortable retirement and that they have a plan for long-term care if they ever need it. If you find out through conversation that they haven’t done these things, then all of you can start taking steps to ensure your parents are prepared for issues they’ll face as they age.

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Start the conversation off on the right foot

Before talking to your parents about their finances, pick a good time to have the conversation. It should be when they’re relaxed and have time to talk – not during a holiday gathering when emotions can be running high and other people who shouldn’t be part of the conversation might be present.

You can use a variety of approaches to get the conversation started without it seeming awkward or forced. If one of these conversation starters doesn’t work, try another. It could take some time to get through to your parents.

  • Ask for advice: If you’re young and just starting out, a natural way to get your parents talking about financial matters is to ask them for advice. For example, if you recently got married, you could ask them whether you need life insurance and a will. Then you could ask if they have these things and what other steps they’ve taken to protect their finances.
  • Use a story: There’s a good chance you know people who have had to get involved with their parents finances because of health issues or perhaps because they died without a will. You could use the story as a cautionary tale or as an example of the benefits of having family money talks if your friends’ situation turned out well because his or her family was prepared for emergencies. Other sources of stories you can share are news reports about older adults who’ve been scammed, articles about the importance of estate planning and interviews with people who are caregivers for parents.
  • Use a life event: If you have a family member who recently passed away or your parents have been involved with caregiving for their parents, you can use those situations as a jumping off point for money talks. For example, you could say something like, “I’ve seen how hard grandma’s death has been for you. I’d like to talk about what sort of planning you’ve done to document your final wishes so we will know what you want. If you have something in writing, it will make everything easier for all of us.”
  • Offer to lighten their load: You might be able to gain insight into your parents’ finances if you offer to take over a financial task for them. This is a good strategy if your parents are older and are showing signs they need help managing their money. For example, you could offer to help them set up automatic bill payments or to do their taxes for them (or get their returns prepared by an accountant). Let them know you want to help so they’ll have more time to do things they enjoy.
  • Take an indirect approach: If your parents aren’t willing to tell you anything about their finances, ask them if they would make a list of their financial accounts, insurance policies, legal documents and final wishes. Ask them to put the list some place safe and tell you how to find it in case of an emergency.

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Gather the critical information about your parent’s finances

The most important thing you need to find out from your parents is whether they have estate planning documents such as a will, power of attorney and advance directive. If they don’t, encourage them to meet with an attorney as soon as possible. If they can’t afford an attorney, there are low-cost legal documents available at websites such as Nolo.com, LegalZoom.com and RocketLawyer.com.

It’s especially important that your parents draft and sign power of attorney and advance directive documents before they have any issues that make them incompetent – such as a stroke, dementia or coma. These documents allow them to name someone to make financial and health care decisions for them if they are unable to do so themselves. If something were to happen to them and they didn’t have these documents, you or your siblings would likely have to go to court to be appointed their conservators or guardians to make financial and health care decisions for them.

If you can, find out what sort of bills your parents have and whether they pay them by check or automatic bill pay. If they were to have a health emergency, you would need to know this information to ensure their bills are being paid if they’re in the hospital for an extended period of time.

The more details you can gather about your parents’ finances, the better equipped you’ll be to step in and help if their physical or mental health deteriorates. Again, asking them to write down this information rather than tell you directly could make it easier for them – and for you because you’ll have a detailed list.

Finally, make sure you know whether your parents have a plan to pay for long-term care or are counting on you to care for them. This will impact your finances because you might have to take time off work or even quit a job to provide that care. If possible, encourage your parents to look into long-term care insurance or meet with a financial planner to figure out if they can afford care on their own.

Above all, be respectful and patient with your parents as you have these conversations. It might take them a while to warm up to the idea of sharing information with you about their finances. Just keep highlighting how important it is to talk so you can plan and have peace of mind.

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Cameron Huddleston is the author of Mom and Dad, We Need to Talk: How to Have Essential Conversations With Your Parents About Their Finances. She also is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about personal finance for more than 17 years. You can learn more about her at CameronHuddleston.com.

The information provided is not written or intended as specific tax or legal advice. Haven Life Insurance Agency does not provide tax or legal advice. Individuals are encouraged to seek advice from their own tax or legal counsel.

Cameron Huddleston

About Cameron Huddleston

Cameron Huddleston is the author of Mom and Dad, We Need to Talk: How to Have Essential Conversations With Your Parents About Their Finances. She is an award-winning journalist with more than 18 years of experience writing about personal finance. Her work has appeared in Kiplinger’s Personal Finance, Business Insider, Chicago Tribune, Forbes, MSN, Yahoo and many more print and online publications. U.S. News & World Report named Cameron one of the top personal finance experts to follow on Twitter, and AOL Daily Finance named me one of the top 20 personal finance influencers to follow on Twitter. She has appeared on CNBC, MSNBC, CNN and “Fox & Friends” and has been a guest on ABC News Radio, Wall Street Journal Radio, NPR and more than 30 podcasts. Cameron has also been interviewed and quoted as an expert in The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, BBC.com, MarketWatch and more.

Read more by Cameron Huddleston

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Haven Life is a customer-centric life insurance agency that’s backed and wholly owned by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual). We believe navigating decisions about life insurance, your personal finances and overall wellness can be refreshingly simple.

Our editorial policy

Haven Life is a customer centric life insurance agency that’s backed and wholly owned by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual). We believe navigating decisions about life insurance, your personal finances and overall wellness can be refreshingly simple.

Our content is created for educational purposes only. Haven Life does not endorse the companies, products, services or strategies discussed here, but we hope they can make your life a little less hard if they are a fit for your situation.

Haven Life is not authorized to give tax, legal or investment advice. This material is not intended to provide, and should not be relied on for tax, legal, or investment advice. Individuals are encouraged to seed advice from their own tax or legal counsel.

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