What to Do If Your Parents Won’t Talk
Elise has tried time and again to talk with her mom about her finances because she’s worried that her mom won’t be able to support herself in retirement. Her mother has owned a small retail business for more than 40 years, but it wasn’t doing well in the early 2010s. In fact, she had talked her second husband, Elise’s stepfather, into borrowing against their home to help to support the business. On top of that, Elise’s mom got pneumonia and had to be put into a medically induced coma. “She came out of it as okay as you can be, but she will never be the healthy person she was,” said Elise, who asked not to use her real name to protect her family’s privacy. “One of the casualties was her business. It completely fell apart.”
However, having to close the business wasn’t the only financial problem. “My mom has never been good with money, which I didn’t understand until I got older,” Elise said. “She came from money. My grandparents were quite wealthy. My mom thought of herself as an heiress, so she didn’t save.” Elise knows that her mom inherited money from her mother when she died in 2002. But the money is in a trust, and Elise has no idea how much is in there. She’s tried to talk to her mom about whether she’ll be able to support herself in retirement, but her mom shuts down any kind of conversation Elise tries to have with her about money. “I know she’d be more open if she felt more confident in her finances,” Elise said. “It’s the fact that she needs help that makes it so difficult to talk to her.”
Because she knows her mom likely won’t open up about where she stands financially, Emily has taken matters into her own hands. She’s been funding a savings account for her mom. “I’m planning ahead in case there’s a big problem but hoping for the best,” she said.
Despite your best efforts, your parents
might never be comfortable sharing information about their finances with you.
You could try every conversation starter and tactic I’ve suggested in this
book, but they will continue to balk because of some deep-seated conviction
against – or fear of – talking about money. That’s when it’s time to come up
with Plan B, as Elise did.
MAKE A LAST-DITCH ATTEMPT TO CET SOME INFORMATION
If your parents have shot down your attempts to talk time and again, ask if they at least can let you know whether they have any estate planning documents such as a will, power of attorney, or advance directive or if they can give you the name of any financial professional they might have hired. Financial psychologist Brad Klontz1 recommends saying something like, “If you’re not comfortable talking to us, if you got in a car wreck, who would we contact – your attorney, your accountant?”
If there’s nobody to contact and your parents don’t have any estate planning documents, consider offering to pay in part or in full to have an attorney draft these documents for them. Let your parents know that you don’t have to see the documents but emphasize how important they are to prevent family feuds and financial disasters when they die or if they become incapacitated. You can play detective to get the information you need if you have to settle their estate when they die or if they can no longer make financial or health care decisions on their own. But neither you nor anyone else will have the legal authority to handle their finances without power of attorney – which means someone will have to go through the lengthy and expensive process of getting conservatorship.
DECIDE WHAT YOU’RE WILLINC AND ABLE TO DO
Even if your parents aren’t willing to share any information about their finances with you, there is a chance that they might want your help someday. That’s why you need to get very clear now on what you’re willing and able to do, said Josh Nelson,2 a certified financial planner and founder of Keystone Financial Services. “If you’re clear in advance, you won’t be so emotional when it comes up,” he said. “People don’t tend to make good financial decisions in a highly emotional state.”
Jen, whose story
I shared in €hapter 15, has offered her mom advice on how to
improve her finances. But Jen and her husband have decided not to provide Jen’s
mom with any financial assistance at this point “for our sake
and for her dignity,” Jen said. She recognizes that her mom’s financial mistakes aren’t her own, and she doesn’t have to feel guilty for that – even if her mom ever tries to lay a guilt trip on her. Jen said it’s important to establish boundaries to protect yourself emotionally and financially.
You might decide that you want to start setting aside money to help your parents, or stay in your current home rather than downsizing once the kids leave so Mom or Dad could move in. You might decide that you can’t or don’t want to provide financial support but can help provide physical care for them. Or you might decide that you can’t help them at all. The decision is yours. However, you do need to let your siblings know what you’re in a position to do so they can plan accordingly, Nelson said.
MAKE A PLAN WITH YOUR SIBLINCS
Even if your parents won’t talk about their finances, you and your siblings need to talk. Nelson said you should have a conversation about what roles each of you will play and how you can chip in if your parents need help. “Even in the best of circumstances, it can create friction in the family if conversations haven’t come up and siblings have different ideas about care,” Nelson said.
I wrote in €hapter 5 about getting on the same page with your siblings before talking to your parents. Many of those tips are still applicable for talking with your siblings if your parents refuse to talk with you about their finances. Take the time to read – or reread – that chapter for help navigating conversations with your siblings about your parents’ money and well-being.
shouldn’t just talk to your siblings about who will do what. You should develop
a complete plan of action. For example, if one of you has agreed to care for
your parents if they have health needs and will have to give up a job to do so,
the other siblings should determine if they can provide financial support to
that sibling – and, if so, how much. Or all of you might agree to set up an
emergency fund for your parents because none of you will have access to their
bank accounts if your parents haven’t named any of you power of attorney. You
could open a savings account and each make monthly contributions to it so
there’s cash to cover your parents bills while you go through the legal process
of becoming conservator.
You should also discuss end-of-life care for your parents. If your parents don’t have living wills that spell out what sort of medical treatment they would want, ideally you and your siblings should agree whether to keep your parents on life support before your parents are in a situation where that decision needs to be made. Having these discussions and hammering out details such as this beforehand can help avoid family fighting when emergencies arise.
If one or all of your siblings don’t want to get involved, keep them updated on what you’re doing if you have to care for your parents financially or physically. You don’t want to give them any reason to think you’re keeping secrets from them or mishandling your parents’ money.
FOCUS ON YOUR FINANCES
Your parents gave you a home to grow up in, fed you, and put clothes on your back. They might have bought you your first car, put you through college, let you move back in when you couldn’t get a job, paid for your wedding, or even helped you buy your first home. Now you feel like you owe them if they ever need your help. But you shouldn’t sacrifice your own financial security to help your parents, said John €ooper,s a certified financial planner with Greenwood €apital.
“I tell my clients to think of it in context of you love your parents and want to do all you can. You have an important role to play. But you really have to make sure your finances are in order first – your retirement, kids’ college,”
€ooper said. “As difficult as it sounds, you have to put your priorities first. You’ll have to pay for those things and will get no assistance.”
So before worrying about Mom or Dad, get on top of your own finances. Figure out what you want and need to do – whether it’s paying off debt, saving more each month so you can retire comfortably, building an emergency fund to cover unexpected expenses, or saving for your kids’ college education.
find that you can reach your own financial goals and be able to afford to help
your parents. It’s something you need to plan for, though, rather than try to
figure out as you go. For example, although Jen isn’t currently helping her mom
out financially, she is saving money in case her
mom needs long-term care. “We’re doing what we can without sacrificing our own well-being,” she said. Elise, who’s worried about whether her mom can support herself in retirement, is doing the same.
If you don’t plan, you really could put your own financial well-being at risk by supporting your parents. Then that could force your children into the same situation where they will have to choose whether to sacrifice their well-being to help support you. You don’t want them to feel like they have to make that choice, do you?
€onsider meeting with a financial planner for help with your finances. You can search for one near you at GuideVine.com, a free service that helps connect people with prescreened financial advisers who are fiduciaries (which means they’re legally required to work in clients’ best interests). You can also find a certified financial planner through the Financial Planning Association’s Plannersearch.org website and the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors’ website, NAPFA.org. There are financial planners who charge by the hour, so it might not cost you much to meet a couple of times to draft a financial plan.
If you can’t – or don’t want to – pay for financial advice, there are plenty of free resources. Your bank’s website might have articles and information about personal finance, as might your workplace retirement plan’s website. The €onsumer Financial Protection Bureau’s website,
€onsumerfinance.gov, has a wealth of information on a variety of money topics. And there are plenty of websites dedicated to personal finance – including Kiplinger.com, Money.com, Investopedia.com, Bankrate.com, GOBankingRates.com, and NerdWallet.com. If you spend time increasing your own knowledge of personal finance, you’ll likely feel more comfortable helping your parents with their finances if they run into trouble.
PARENTS WITH DEMENTIA
If your parents
refuse to share information about their finances but have dementia or some
other cognitive impairment, you will have to step in if you want to protect
them from financial – and physical – ruin. That doesn’t mean you should just
jump in and take over, at least not initially. Offer to
set up automatic bill pay for them or help with other financial tasks so they can have more time to do things they enjoy. Help them get free copies of their credit report at Annualcreditreport.com, then suggest that you go through the report together to look for signs that they’re victims of fraud – such as accounts they didn’t open. If you can find ways to start inserting yourself into your parents’ financial lives, you might be able to gather information about their accounts, check for signs that they’re being scammed, and ensure that they’re managing their money wisely. The goal is to help them make decisions, then take over more control – with their best interests in mind – as their abilities decline.
If they resist all of your efforts, then you might have to be sneaky to gather the information you need to help and protect your parents. For example, you might want to remove credit cards from their wallet and replace them with a secured credit card, which requires a deposit that becomes the spending limit and will help prevent them from charging more than they can afford to pay. You might have to go through their mail to intercept donation requests, sweepstakes entry forms, and other solicitations for cash. Or you might need to start pointing out the financial mistakes they’re making as a result of memory loss – in a caring, not condescending, way – and let them know that you want to protect them. To do that, tell them they will have to start working with you rather than resisting your efforts to help.
You’ll be able to make financial decisions and transactions for them if they’ve designated you as power of attorney. However, you have to have the actual legal document. Without it, no financial institution will simply take your word that you are power of attorney for your parents. If your parents are unwilling to tell you where their POA documents are but clearly can no longer manage their finances on their own, start searching for them in their home. If you know who their attorney is, call to explain the situation and ask if he or she has your parents’ POA documents on file. Most attorneys only keep copies of clients’ documents, but they might have an original copy. However, they might not be willing to give it to you unless you can prove that your parent is no longer competent.
If your parents
have not designated a power of attorney, you
likely will have to go to court to get conservatorship – the legal right to
manage your parent’s finances (which I explained in €hapter 4).
It can be an expensive and lengthy process that will require proving that your
parents are no longer
competent to manage their financial affairs themselves. If you are appointed conservator, you’ll have to file annual reports with the court to show how you are managing your parents’ finances.
The €onsumer Financial Protection Bureau has a guide to managing someone else’s money that could offer you more assistance in figuring out how to help your parents with their finances at https://www.consumerfinance.gov/consumer-tools/managing-someone- elses-money/. Eldercare.gov and the Alzheimer’s Association (www.alz.org) also have resources for caregivers.
I’m not going to lie: It’s tough to manage your parents’ finances if they have memory loss or a condition that leaves them unable to handle money matters on their own. But without help – which they might initially resist – they could make disastrous financial mistakes or become victims of fraud and end up with no money.