12 Tough Questions to Ask Your Parents

Last Updated Dec 18, 2009 2:56 PM EST

"Hey Dad, how's the game? Oh, and do you want to be buried or cremated? And how much money are you leaving me?"

The mere idea of having a talk with your elderly parents about their finances and estate planning is enough to make you wish for swine flu this Thanksgiving — anything to help you avoid having “the talk.” Will they think you’re making a grab for their cash? Invading their privacy?

As painful as it is to initiate the conversation — or better yet, a series of small conversations — such communication is key to helping ensure that your parents live out their lives without money worries, and that their estate planning wishes are followed.

When Anne Maxfield of New York City was in her late 40s, she began talking to her parents about getting their estate documents in order. But they never took action. “Every holiday, when they asked me what I wanted, I’d just say, ‘power of attorney,’ ” Maxfield says. “I told them, ‘Look, I don’t want to be a nervous wreck and a depressed person because you guys haven’t thought about what you want to do if something happens.” After a few years of conversations, her parents finally completed the documents. “I feel a little bit more at peace. We’ve opened the door, and we can have bigger discussions,” she says.

Financial advisers say bringing up the future with your parents — their finances, estate matters, memorial wishes — is one of the best things you can do for them and for you. The earlier you can do it, the better. “We have many clients in their mid-60s who have Alzheimer’s set in, or have a stroke,” says Dick Edwards, author of Mom, Dad Can We Talk? “It leaves the family in a state of confusion and with a lot of guilt because they’re then not sure if they’re doing what Mom and Dad wish.”

How to Have the Talks

Build a series of estate planning conversations into your family dynamics, chaired by whomever in your family Mom or Dad relate to best. “I used my husband as a foil, because he’s very direct and doesn’t anger anyone,” says Raeann Berman, author of Caring for Your Aging Parents. “I sort of chickened out, and that seemed to be the easiest way to do it.”

Look for openings, whether it’s an offhand reference by your mother to her mortality, or when you’re all together in the aftermath of a family member’s funeral. If no one wants to steer these talks, bring in a trusted independent party, like the family lawyer or a close friend of your parents. The Web site 4070talk.com, created by the Home Instead Senior Care network of caregivers, has other conversation starters. (It’s called 4070 because Home Instead says an ideal time to have the talks is when you’re 40 and your parents are 70.)

You might also break the ice by asking your parents for advice about your estate planning. Tell them you wonder how they’ve handled their own. When the talk turns to your parents’ assets, make sure they know you’re not trying to get your hands on them. If they feel surrounded, they’ll get defensive. “Tell them, ‘I need you to stay in charge. But at a minimum, I want to know where all this stuff is kept, and then let’s talk about what parts I should know about,’ ” says Elinor Ginzler, co-author of Caring for Your Parents: The Complete AARP Guide.

If all else fails, try taking pen to paper, and put your concerns into words. You want to convey that you care about your parents, and that you want what’s best for them. “You can say, ‘I know it’s hard for you to talk about this, but I want to let you know that it’s important,’ ” Ginzler says. “ ‘And maybe the way we talk is that we write back and forth.’ ”

12 Questions to Ask

These are the 12 key questions to ask your parents to make sure that their estate is in order and that their plans will be carried out:

1. Who’s on your team?

If your parents work with financial and legal professionals, ask for a list of their names, addresses and phone numbers (or make sure you know where to find that list if you need it). You may need to involve their attorney, accountant and financial planner in estate matters. Also key: names and numbers of your parents’ doctors, in case end-of-life medical decisions need to be made.

2. Do you have a will?

If they don’t, it’s unlikely your parents have much else in the way of estate documents. If they do, here’s what you need to know: how recently the will was written, who will be the executor and where the original document is. If the will is more than five years old, suggest they review it to make sure their current wishes are represented.

3. Do you have an advance directive and power of attorney?

If so, ask to see them so you know their feelings about life support and who will manage their financial affairs if they can’t. “Imagine the family surprise when someone arrives on the scene with a document in their hand saying, ‘By the way, I’ve been authorized to take over here,’ ” Ginzler says.

4. Are your beneficiaries up to date?

Designated beneficiaries on insurance policies, pensions and investments trump any instructions your parents have in their will. Make sure your parents have updated theirs to reflect their current wishes.

5. What financial accounts do you have — and where?

Have your parents draw up (with your help, if they prefer) a list of their bank, brokerage and mutual fund accounts and the account numbers. If they have any user names and passwords on the accounts, get those too. If they’re uncomfortable doing this, have them put all the relevant info in a notebook, so you will have the essentials when you need them.

6. What insurance do you have and where are the policies?

If Mom is incapacitated, you’ll need to know about her health insurance private or Medicare. Also locate your parents’ life insurance, auto, homeowners, disability and long-term-care policies, so you know their coverage and whom to contact to cancel.

7. Where is your financial paperwork?

You’ll want to know where to find the title to your parents’ house and car, their property deed, and all loan documents.

8. Where are your tax files?

If you find yourself handling an estate that gets complicated, you may need your parents’ previous years’ returns.

9. When and where would you consider moving?

Explore whether Mom and Dad have thought about what they’ll do when they can no longer climb stairs or take care of a big place. Would they want in-home care? Would they prefer moving to an assisted-living facility, and if so, to any one in particular? If your parents plan to stay put, you’ll need to talk about whether the house is built for senior living and, if not, how to retrofit it.

10. How do you envision your memorial service?

You’ll want to know what kind of funeral they have in mind, assuming they want one, and where they want to be buried or cremated. “You might find out that 35 years ago, they bought burial plots and you didn’t ever know it,” Ginzler says.

11. Are you an organ donor?

Watch your approach here. “It should be, ‘The more I know about your wishes, the better able I am to execute them on your behalf,’ ” Ginzler says. “Not, ‘Mom, you really should think about giving those good eyes of yours to science.’ ” You’ll also want to know where your parent keeps her organ-donor designation; in some states, it’s on a driver’s license, in others there’s an organ donor card.

12. Where is your safe-deposit box and its key?

If you’re the executor of your parents’ estate, you may be able to get into the box without a key, but it’ll probably involve a drill and a substantial fee.

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  • Kate Ashford

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