How to talk with your parents about their finances
Talking to your parents about their finances probably seems like one of the most awkward you conversations you could ever have. I'll bet it ranks right up there with the sex talk your parents gave you when you were a kid — or that you’ve had with your own children.
I grew up in the South, where we don’t talk about money or sex. So when I asked my mom where babies came from, she told me a man and woman “make love”. That’s it. That was the extent of the conversation.
I have three kids, so clearly I figured out where babies come from. When my oldest was 10, she asked me where babies came from. I didn’t say something vague like, “A man and woman make love.” I simply told her the basics. She then looked at me – and remember, I have three kids – and said, “Ooh, you did that three times.”
I decided to be upfront with my kids because I wanted them to know they could feel comfortable talking to me about a topic that many people consider taboo. Like the money talk with parents, it’s only as awkward as you make it.
However, unlike the birds and the bees talk, you cannot figure out your parents’ finances unless you actually get the details.
I learned this the hard way.
Why You Need to Talk to Your Parents About Money
Years ago, I suggested to my mom that she look into getting long-term care insurance. She was sixty years old and living on her own because she and my dad had divorced. As a personal-finance journalist, I knew it would be good for her to have an insurance policy to pay for long-term care if she ever needed it.
She took my advice and met with an insurance agent. But, unfortunately, she had a pre-existing health condition – a benign tumor behind her left ear — that made her too much of a risk to insure. If I'd been smart, I would’ve used that opportunity to start talking to her about her finances to figure out how she would pay for long-term care if she ever needed it.
But I wasn’t smart.
I didn’t realize how important it was to have a conversation with my mom about her finances at the time.
A few years after my mom found out that she couldn’t get long-term care coverage, she started having trouble remembering things. I knew I needed to act quickly to get her to meet with an attorney to update her legal documents. She agreed, and the attorney drafted a will, living will, and power of attorney for her.
It was especially important to get those latter two documents drafted. Her living will named my sister and me as her health care surrogates and gave us authority to make health care decisions for her. And we both were named her power of attorney, which gave us the right to make financial decisions for her.
Here’s the thing. You must be mentally competent to sign those documents. If I had waited any longer to get my mom to meet with an attorney, the attorney might not have allowed her to sign her power of attorney and living will documents. I wouldn’t have been able to step in and start making financial decisions for her without going through a lengthy and expensive court process to become her conservator and guardian.
If something were to happen to your parents – say a stroke – and you needed to access their bank account to pay their hospital bills or talk to any of their financial institutions, you couldn’t unless your parents had already named you their power of attorney and you had the document. And you can’t make health care decisions for them unless they’ve named you their health care proxy.
If you wait until a health emergency to talk to your parents about their finances, it could be too late. They might not have the legal documents in place to allow you to step in and help. You won’t have a plan for dealing with the emergency. And emotions will be running high. You and your parents won’t be thinking rationally, and the last thing any of you will want to discuss are finances.
It might not be a health issue that forces you to get involved with your parents’ finances. They might not have saved enough for retirement and will need support from you. They might die without a will, and you’ll have to deal with what’s left behind while family members fight over who gets what.
As scary as having a conversation with your parents about their finances might seem, the consequences of not talking to them can be much worse.
How to Talk to Your Parents About Their Finances
So now that I've sufficiently scared you, you’re probably thinking: “Okay, I get that I need to have this conversation. But I don’t know how.”
First, realize that the scenario you’re playing out in your head about your parents flying off the handle because you tell them you want to talk about their finances probably won’t happen. In fact, they might even be grateful that you’re looking out for their well-being – that is, if you approach the conversation out of respect and concern for their best interests.
What you don’t want to do is be condescending. The fastest way to shut down a conversation with your parents is to talk down to them.
You’ll also scare them away if you appear to have selfish motives. These conversations are not about you and what you might hope to inherit someday. These conversations are about letting your parents know that you want to know what their wishes are so you can follow them.
And don’t issue ultimatums. Telling your parents you won’t help them as they age if they don’t talk to you about their finances won’t work. They’ll just resist your efforts even more.
Instead, choose a time when your parents are relaxed and there aren’t other people around who don’t need to be part of the conversation. (Hint: A holiday meal isn't the ideal time for this talk.) Then try one of these tactics to get the conversation started:
- Share your own financial planning experience. For example, if you recently drafted a will, tell your parents that you want them to know where it is in case of an emergency. Then you could ask what sort of estate planning documents they have and where they are. The goal isn't to find out whether they’ve included you in their will or how much money you’re getting, but to know if they even have their financial wishes in writing.
- Use current events. You could let your parents know that you’re concerned about their well-being during the current coronavirus pandemic and want to know whether they’ve taken any steps to plan for a health-care emergency. For example, you could ask whether they have an advance directive or living will that names a health care proxy for them – someone to make medical decisions for them if they can’t.
- Offer to lighten their load. You can get a glimpse into your parents’ finances by offering to take over a money task for them – such as setting up automatic bill payments – so they have more time to do things they enjoy.
There are plenty of other ways to start the conversation, from sharing a story about someone you know who had to get involved with a parent’s financial life to sending them an actual invitation to talk. If one approach doesn’t work, try another.
What to Do If Your Parents Are Reluctant to Talk About Money
It might take time for your parents to get comfortable with the idea of sharing information about their finances with you. If you’ve made several attempts to start the conversation and haven’t had luck, you might benefit from getting a third party involved.
Reach out to a family friend, a member of the clergy or your parents’ attorney or accountant for help. That person might be more successful in persuading your parents to start talking to you because parents can be reluctant to take the advice of their own children.
Another option to get your parents to share information with you is to ask them to write it down rather than tell you. Ask them to make a list of their financial accounts, store that list someplace safe, and tell you how and when you would be able to access it.
This can be a tricky situation, but it’s important not to give up. If those approaches don’t work, here are a few other strategies for speaking with reluctant parents.
What Information to Gather
If your parents are willing to talk, start with the basics.
You don’t need to know how much they have in the bank, but you need to know where they bank. Also find out how they pay their bills – by automatic bill pay or by check. If it’s the latter, suggest that they set up automatic payments to ensure their bills get paid if, say, they are injured and have to be in the hospital for a while.
Find out whether they have a power of attorney who can make financial decisions for them if they can’t — and a health care proxy to make medical decisions for them if they can’t. Also, ask if they have a will that spells out who gets what when they die. An attorney can draft all of these documents. Without them, state law will determine who gets your parents assets, and a judge will likely decide who can make financial or health care decisions for them if they become incompetent.
Over several conversations (that’s right, you don’t need to do this all at once), dig deeper to find out what sources of income your parents have and where they stand financially.
- Do they have debt?
- What sort of insurance policies do they have?
- Do they have enough saved for a comfortable retirement?
- Do they have a plan for paying for long-term care if they need it?
Gather as many details as you can about the financial accounts they have, the bills they regularly pay, the investments they have, the professionals they work with and their financial wishes. Again, you could ask them to write down this information – including usernames and passwords – so you’ll have it in case of an emergency.
I can’t promise that if you use any or all of these strategies that the conversation will go so well that you and your parents will pop open the champagne and celebrate when you’re done talking. It might take several attempts and several conversations.
But if you don’t try at all, you won’t get the information you need, and you won’t be prepared to help your parents as they age. Really, that’s what this is all about – being there for your parents when they need you most.
J.D.'s note: Cam and I are in similar situations, and we've chatted about our shared frustrations before. Both of our mothers are aging and have memory issues. As a result, we've both taken charge of their finances.
One thing that I've learned is that some of this stuff is really very easy. Many institutions will work with you as long as you have the proper documentation. In some cases — as with my mother's bank — the organization will work with you, but there are hoops to jump through.
Believe it or not, the greatest difficulty I've had in managing my mom's money is with the Vanguard Group, and it's not because they're being jerks. They're very serious about security — as they should be — but as a result, it's a total pain in the ass to take care of my mom's retirement accounts — including required minimum distributions.