My mum died at the age of 61, when I was 31. Seeing her headstone in a field of others hit me with a brutal if obvious fact: everyone, including everyone’s parents, will die.
I want to prepare you as this loss can happen sooner than you’d expect. And when parents die, it’s often up to their children to manage not just grief but also financial tasks.
Planning for those to-dos now could help later, when you experience what may be some of your hardest days.
“We surely ought to have some idea of what we’re facing,” says Melanie Cullen, San Francisco-based author of Get It Together: Organise Your Records So Your Family Won’t Have To.
“On the other side of it, our parents need to know we’re interested, we care, we’re there to help,” she says.
Here’s why, how and what to talk about with your parents.
Why must I discuss this morbid topic?
Without documented plans for your parents’ end-of-life finances, you may wind up scraping for cash.
Imagine you weren’t given access to your parents’ financial accounts in the case of incapacity or death. What would happen if your parents were too sick to manage their finances?
You would need to pay their bills but couldn’t tap their money to do so. Then you couldn’t use their money for their funeral, which could cost thousands of dollars.
Many caregivers wind up “digging into their own money”, says family caregiving expert Amanda Singleton.
You can’t save or invest money that’s covering your parents’ expenses, she adds. And if you’re short on cash, you may take on debt.
Beyond this potential financial hit, your parents’ plans and wishes are less likely to be fulfilled if you don’t know what they are.
How do I frame the conversation?
Broach the subject with sensitivity and respect. Personal finance is an uncomfortable topic for many. Now your parents must talk about both money and death with their kid.
Your parents are likely to have attended more funerals than you and may have managed their own parents’ deaths. Consider tapping those experiences to start your conversation, Ms Singleton says. Ask how they handled their loved ones’ end-of-life care.
Did grandma have an up-to-date will and make her financial information easy for your parents to find? Maybe they can follow her lead. Or if your parents had to sort out messy finances, recalling that experience could prompt them to get organised.
Another option is to lead with a topical or personal prompt. That’s what Mark Schrader, a North Carolina-based certified financial planner, did with his mum.
When his CFP courses covered certain planning-related topics, he would bring up what he was learning and ask about her intentions.
If you’ve learnt about end-of-life planning on your own — say, in an article — or are making your own arrangements, let your parents know and ask for their point of view.
“Make it a planning and preparation conversation,” says Mr Schrader, who’s also a financial planning strategist at TIAA, a retirement planning organisation.
“It’s not as much about the numbers or ‘How much do you have in these accounts?’ but ‘What accounts do you have, and 'How can I help if for some reason you couldn’t be there?’”
What should we cover?
Ask if your parents have a power of attorney for finances. This legal document names someone who can make money decisions on their behalf.
Also learn whether they have similar documents for medical care, such as an advanced care directive, health care proxy or power of attorney for health care.
A living will can be helpful, since this document outlines what they might want for end-of-life care.
Learn whether or not your parents have an up-to-date estate plan. This might include a will or a living trust that specifies how they want their assets distributed. Assets would include their house, vehicle, stocks and money in various accounts.
If your parents don’t have an estate plan, consider looking for an estate planning attorney or low-cost will services.
When do I bring this up?
Discuss this topic now as loved ones can die sooner than you’d imagine.
And your parents’ lives and plans will change, so Mr Cullen suggests you “go into it as a lifelong conversation”.