Money tends to be a sensitive topic that most people avoid discussing. Generally, it’s the polite and uncontroversial thing to do. But when it comes to adult children and aging parents, this is a conversation that simply has to happen. Failing to talk about legal and financial matters with Mom and Dad could put you in a very difficult position should you ever need to help them manage their money or take over these decisions entirely.
Your motivation for asking questions about your parents’ financial situation and estate plan likely stems from genuine concern and curiosity. However, broaching these subjects requires some tact if you don’t want to come across as greedy, meddlesome, disrespectful or manipulative. A poorly worded or ill-timed conversational icebreaker can cause parents to clam up, hindering future discussions.
Financial talks with your aging parents don’t have to be awkward or emotionally charged one-time events. Ideally, they should be a series of ongoing and informative conversations that give you both added peace of mind. If you’re struggling to get started, try using these seven tips from financial advisors to ease into the discussion with Mom and Dad.
7 Tips for Discussing Money and Aging With Parents
Make it part of the news.You may find your parents are spending more time tuned in to news channels since they’ve slowed down or retired. News stories and ticker updates about the economy, health care and politics can provide a valuable jumping off point. Try striking up a conversation about loosely related current events and finding a way of turning the attention to Mom and Dad’s situation. This can be as simple as asking their opinion on a particular matter or how a certain economic development may or may not affect them legally and/or financially.
Why it works: This approach fosters a bigger picture discussion about current events that can be naturally eased toward other topics, instead of immediately putting their financial situation or legal preparations under the microscope.
“It opens the door for more conversations to have with your parents and hopefully allows you to be able to share some specific information that relates to them and their needs,” explains Judy Ravenna, a private financial advisor with Truist Investment Services in Odessa, Fla.
Invite them to educate others.Give your parents the opportunity to pass their financial wisdom along to younger generations by asking them about lessons they’ve learned and decisions (both good and bad) they’ve made over the years.
Why it works: Mark Singer, CFP, president of Safe Harbor Retirement Planning in Lynn, Mass., says this approach is a safe one because it isn’t directly focused on their current financial situation. “You’re just asking to open up the conversation,” he notes. This helps you gauge each parent’s comfort level and practice talking about money together before diving into more sensitive details.
Discuss your own legal and financial planning process.Adult children usually discuss recent projects and emerging goals with their parents. Sound legal and financial plans are important for your own future as well, so feel free to mention these objectives in regular conversations about what you and your family have been up to lately. Whether you’re just starting to look for a financial planner and legal counsel, or you already have a comprehensive plan in place that you simply review once a year, use these undertakings to facilitate open, honest conversations.
For example, share that you’ve been working with a financial planner who is asking you questions about your estate plan and retirement goals. Explain that this process has reminded you to ask if your parents are working with a financial expert and how they’ve addressed the same questions. Throughout this larger conversation, you may be able to get the name of their financial advisor and learn how they have decided to organize and store their important legal and financial documents. You might also want to politely mention whether you are willing and able to play a role in their plans if needed (e.g., as financial power of attorney, health care proxy, executor, etc.).
Why it works: If you start by sharing something personal, Mom and Dad are more likely to reciprocate. Talking about your own preparations for the future and how they protect you and your family may help them realize that their plans (or lack thereof) will impact you as well. Discussing these plans is crucial for ensuring that you (or whoever else they have authorized to participate in them) have all the tools and information needed to ensure their wishes are respected.
Ravenna encourages adult children to appeal to their parents by saying something like, “If you’ll let me help, I would like to be a part of your planning because all of this may affect me someday, too.”
Caution against failing to plan.Most parents want to continue living in the way they are accustomed for as long as possible and leave a legacy for their children and grandchildren after they pass away. However, a surprising number of older adults are resistant to working with a financial advisor or elder law attorney to create a retirement plan or an estate plan. Explain to them that, without proper planning, you and other family members may need to endure the arduous process of seeking guardianship to manage their health care and finances. They may need to turn to Medicaid for help covering their long-term care costs. After they die, some of their assets could be taxed in ways they don’t anticipate or taken from the family, depending on the circumstances.
Why it works: “They’ve taken such pride in accumulating that asset base,” Singer acknowledges. Pointing out how failing to protect their income and assets may end up enriching the government or their creditors can be a powerful motivator. If your aging parents are serious about their wishes being respected, then they need to spend the time and money to create a plan that will ensure exactly that.
Keep some topics off limits.Always be respectful of your parents’ privacy and independence and try to make sure your questions and comments are appropriate. Sure, you probably want to know if you can expect a bequest someday, how much it will be worth and whether other family members will receive the same amounts, but this information is not important. Refrain from asking insensitive questions like these. Your parents’ money is theirs to spend how they please, and they are likely to need most—if not all—of their income and assets to fund their care as they get older.
Be aware that parents may be embarrassed by their financial situation or simply subscribe to generational norms that discourage talking about money, especially in detail. Knowing this—and even asking if that is the case—may help you navigate the conversation.
Why it works: This should be obvious, but sticking to the pertinent facts reduces the likelihood that you might come across as prying or self-centered. Although it may be frustrating, speaking in generalizations can still be beneficial.
“You don’t necessarily need to know exactly what they’ve done,” Singer adds. “You just need to know that they’ve done it.”
Keep them in control.Talk to your parents about how you want to make sure they are able to continue along the financial roadmap they have created for themselves. Make it clear that you want their wishes to be respected in life and in death, but you must have a precise understanding of what their preferences are in order to follow through on this promise.
Why it works: Like many older adults, your parents are probably nervous about someday losing their independence and control over their lives. Discussing these possibilities makes them very real and very scary. Explaining that you are committed to helping them safeguard their future as they envision it should be very reassuring.
“They certainly wouldn’t want a non-family member making those decisions for them,” Ravenna warns.
Try talking to Mom alone.This is not a definite rule, but adult children who are having trouble making headway in these conversations may want to consider approaching their mothers one on one about retirement, finances and future care. While it’s ideal to sit down with both parents to get a complete picture of their preparations and goals, addressing them one at a time can be effective.
Why it works: Research has shown that mothers are more likely to engage in frank, detailed conversations about these topics with their adult children. In fact, a survey released by Fidelity Investments found that the majority of mothers (64 percent) admit that starting such discussions with their children was not difficult.
The particular role that each parent plays in the family dynamic may be responsible for the differences in how much information mothers and fathers are willing to share with their kids. Mothers tend to see themselves as the “empathizers,” making them more apt to initiate a dialogue about sensitive subjects, such as money and end-of-life planning. Fathers, on the other hand, tend to perceive their role as that of the “pragmatist.” They believe in a no-nonsense, logical approach to talking about touchy subjects.
Families are increasingly diverse these days and you know yours best. If a piecemeal approach seems like the best option for getting your foot in the door, then speak with the parent you think will be the most receptive first. He or she may be able to convince their better half to join in these important discussions.