In some instances, it may become obvious that a conversation needs to happen, such as noticing stacks of unopened bills and statements on a visit. Or, an unexpected hospitalization may prompt a discussion about which bills need to be paid before the lights get turned off at home.
If aging parents are active and fully capable of caring for their day-to-day needs, it’s easy to postpone the talk. In truth, this is the best time to have a family meeting and get everyone on the same page, as you won’t have the added stress of trying to gather important documents and information during a crisis. If possible, use the meeting to appoint one individual as the primary point person to help parents manage.
Get the lay of the land
It is likely that, over time, your parents have established relationships with multiple financial institutions for their savings and investments as well as for any credit or debt obligations.
Together, make a list of all their financial resources and relationships, including those for savings and checking accounts, investments, pensions or retirement plans, annuities and real estate. You’ll want to know which accounts provide cash flow and which are used to pay bills. Also make note of any obligations, such as credit cards, mortgages or other personal loans.
Follow their routine and filing
Get to know your parents’ bill-paying routine. While most obligations may be due monthly, some may be paid at longer intervals, such as quarterly or annually. Make a calendar of due dates for all obligations, including utilities, rent or mortgage, insurance, taxes, credit cards, personal loans, subscription services and so on. Evaluate whether establishing automatic bill payment can help ease their burden of tracking spending.
Additionally, have your parents show you their filing system, so you know where to find documentation if necessary. If they don’t have one, offer to help set one up, either in a paper filing folder or on the computer – whichever is easiest for them to manage. Check in once or twice a year to ensure they’re keeping the system current.
If your parents are comfortable with giving you more insight into their spending, they may request having duplicate statements sent to you or even provide you with online access to their account information. While the understanding is that you wouldn’t have any control over their accounts, you would provide an extra layer of security to ensure bills are paid and to flag any questionable activity. When the time comes, you’ll be better equipped to assist in or even take over actual management.
Cover estate planning basics
While you don’t need to know the details of your parents’ last wishes now, you do need to know that they have prepared the basic documents and that you will be able to access them in the event they are needed.
Make a list of where key documents are kept or with whom. For instance, a will, trust, healthcare directive and durable power of attorney may all be accessible through your parents’ legal representation, while their accountant may have copies of tax and financial records. In addition, be sure that your parents provide instructions on how to access their safe or safe deposit box, as well as any important documents such as birth and marriage records.
Make it a family effort
If you’re still worrying about finding a way to start the conversation, an appeal to vanity never hurts. Consider sharing with your parents that you’re embarking on getting your own finances and estate planning matters in order and would love some pointers from the pros.
Ask how they’ve structured their matters and casually note that it would be good to have a record of where things stand – on both sides – in case the unthinkable happens to either you or them. With luck, they’ll take the bait and you’ll all be on your way to being financially awesome no matter what age throws your way.
Having a succinct checklist can be helpful for getting started. Here’s a great list from Caring.com of everything you should discuss with your parents concerning finances.