When I was 9 years old I made my first budget, (yeah, sad), about the same time I learned what income taxes were (which were not as intriguing when they appeared in my first paycheck at age 16.) I wanted to know how much my parents paid for stuff, how much money they made, how much money they had, and if we were rich yet. So it’s probably no surprise that both of my parents were open with me about their estate planning, accounts, and how they want and wanted (one is now deceased) things to go. With me as a daughter, there was no avoiding the subject.
In my experience, though, a lot of families are not wired this way. One of the questions a financial planner might ask a Baby Boomer is, “Might you have to care for anyone in the future, either physically or financially?” Sometimes people in their 50s and 60s dealing with parents in their 80s and 90s have no idea what kind of resources their parents have. More common responses I have heard are, “Um, I think they’re pretty well off,” or “My mother will probably have to move in with me or my siblings, but I’m not sure.”
So what if you are an adult child with an aging parent, or an aging parent with adult children, wondering how to have a conversation about money that you have never had before? Perhaps you are afraid there might be hurt feelings. What if someone simply can’t handle the emotion that comes up, and derails the conversation? What if the conversation permanently alters the relationship in a way you never intended?
According to Ken Donaldson, LMHC, with a difficult subject like aging and money, it’s best to follow a few simple guidelines:
1) Have all interested parties present for the conversation.
2) Own the difficulty of the subject, saying something like, “I want to talk about something important, but I’m afraid there might be hurt feelings,” or “I have something I want to ask, but I don’t want to give the wrong impression or offend you.”
3) Don’t mess around; get straight to the point. If you are the child, you might say, “Mom, Dad, we’ve never talked about this, but, as you are aging, I am wondering what kind of resources you have to see you through your later years, and if you might need help.” If you are the parent, you might say, “Son, Daughter, we’ve never talked about this, but I need to let you know what my financial situation is.”
Particularly if you believe the conversation may lead to an uncomfortable place, i.e. one party may need financial help from the other, and it may or may not be there to give, or, there might be different ideas of what’s “fair,” then the sooner that message gets conveyed, the better off everyone will be. Remember that opening this can of worms doesn’t mean a solution has to be found in that same conversation. Enlist all parties involved to commit to figuring out the best solution together, with the goal being to allow the parent to live comfortably and leave the legacy of their own definition, tangible or intangible.
The best time to talk about money and aging is, well, anytime (although not necessarily with a 9 year old). But the sooner you get started, the easier it will be.