Rabbi Jeffrey Wildstein, JD, president of Kavod Daily Money Management, a secular Daily Money Management firm in Weston, Massachusetts. He served as a congregational rabbi for 14 years in Indianapolis, Massachusetts and Minneapolis. KavodDMM.com
You just found out that your mother hasn’t paid her utility bill for months, and now her electricity has been turned off. You are not alone—adult children deal with this or something similar all the time. The truth is, many adult children know little about their elderly parents’ finances—that is, until a crisis strikes.
It can be awkward trying to help when aging parents struggle with basic financial tasks such as paying bills, budgeting, organizing documents and managing their investments. That’s because it’s not just about dollars and cents, says money-management expert Jeffrey Wildstein. It’s about the fear that your parents’ mental capacity is diminishing…the stark role reversal between parent and child…and the larger loss of independence and control.
Your parents made so many sacrifices for you, and now you don’t want them dealing with this alone. But they can be stubborn—they may keep insisting, “I’m fine! It was just an oversight.”
Wildstein should know. For 14 years while he served as a congregational rabbi, he helped hundreds of families in his communities cope with their challenges with elderly parents. He says the ability to work through your parents’ resistance and have frank, productive conversations not only circumvents bigger problems later, but also makes it easier to address daunting estate-planning issues such as wills, plans for the family home and end-of-life care.
Bottom Line Personal asked Wildstein, now president of his own Daily Money Management firm, Kavod Daily Money Management, to explain the big mistakes adult children make and his savvy strategies for helping elderly family members manage their money…
Mistake #1: Missing the warning signs that your parents’ finances are off-track and/or their financial decision-making is in decline. The signs include…
Unusual purchases: Are they suddenly buying things that don’t fit their needs or lifestyle? Are they entering multiple contests and sweepstakes?
Calls from creditors: Parents may seem like they are deliberately ignoring overdue notices, but often they are just too overwhelmed.
Increased disorganization in their home: Mail and documents are piling up on the dining room table…Mom’s usually orderly spice rack is in disarray.
Their mail is flooded with donation requests: Your parents may be handing over money to charities with which they have no ties…or writing multiple checks to organizations because they have forgotten they had already contributed.
Mistake #2: Mishandling conversations about finances with your parents. It’s easy to get into power struggles, make them feel incompetent, and strain your relationship. Better ways to handle these conversations…
First focus on gathering information, rather than suggesting they need your help with their finances. Example: Say, “The pandemic has prompted me to do a better job of planning for emergencies, Dad. If you ever need me to step in during an emergency, I am worried that I don’t have a list of your income, accounts, insurance policies and passwords.” If you get pushback: Tell your parents they can make the list, but you will not use it until there is an actual emergency. Say, “I’m not trying to pry or be nosey or take control. I’ve got my own finances to manage. But you took great care of me while I was growing up, and I want to do that for you if you ever need it.”
Show curiosity rather than criticizing and catastrophizing. I named my money-management firm after the Hebrew word Kavod, which means “honor.” Be sure to show honor and respect. Example: Say, “Dad, I understand keeping all your resources in a large bank feels more secure to you, but I’m concerned it’s not paying enough interest for your future needs. There are equally safe places that offer higher yields. Can we talk about this?”
Have a series of casual discussions that make incremental progress, rather than a major family intervention. Ultimately, it’s still your parents’ money. As long as they are competent, they have the right to choose how they spend it and to make their own mistakes. Accept that you don’t have control now over what they decide, but you can have more influence as time goes along. Consider enlisting help from people they trust and may listen to more readily, such as their old friends, siblings or lawyer or accountant.
Mistake #3: Helicoptering. You might want to swoop in and take over parts of your parents’ finances, even making moves without their knowledge, because it’s faster and more efficient. But you will get much further by finding cooperative solutions that make them feel empowered. Better strategies…
Start with small problems that are causing them stress. The key is to build trust in accepting your help. It could be as simple as assisting in retrieving a password so they can look at their bank account. Or if your parents keep bouncing checks, say, “I noticed that you had trouble paying your insurance premiums. How can we work to solve this so we can make sure you have coverage?” You may wind up writing out the actual checks for them and letting one of your parents sign them.
Create a donation list and establish a budget. If your parents are sending checks to every charity that asks for money, draw up a list of causes they care most about and the amount they can afford to give. Post the list next to their computer or near their checkbook so they can keep track of the date they made their last donation.
Mistake #4: Not protecting parents from financial exploitation by caregivers. Full- and part-time aides who your parents come to rely on can pose as much of a threat as anonymous e-mail and phone scammers. The Federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau found that, in instances where the victims knew the perpetrators, one in nine incidents of elder financial exploitation were committed by non-family caregivers. To protect your parents from caregivers…
Make sure important financial documents are secured in a safe place and not left in the open, including your parents’ Social Security cards and checkbooks.
Limit the caregiver’s access to your parents’ credit cards. If his/her job includes buying groceries or running errands, consider giving him prepaid debit cards, so he can spend only up to the preloaded amount.
Watch for unusual financial activity in your parents’ accounts, such as checks that are written as “loans” or “gifts” or have suspicious-looking signatures.
Mistake #5: Miscommunicating with siblings over your parents’ finances. Perhaps one sibling lives close to Mom and handles the lion’s share of responsibilities. The more distant siblings may have very different ideas about how to help Mom with her money. Under these circumstances, it’s easy to trigger childhood hurts over who a parent loves and trusts more. To reduce family drama…
Be transparent with your siblings about your parents’ finances. Secrets about money quickly become toxic in families. Example: You are the one who helps Dad with his finances. You need a loan. You ask your dad for a loan, but he asks to keep it between just the two of you. If the other siblings find out, it raises suspicions about whether you are being exploitative, even if Dad is happy to do it and can easily afford the loan. It’s usually best to have everyone be open and honest before undertaking a significant transaction such as a loan.
Mistake #6: Commingling funds. It might be more convenient to open a joint bank account with your elderly parents to manage their financial needs, but it also poses multiple problems. Examples: If you have financial problems, your parents’ security may be at risk if creditors can go after the joint account to settle your debts…your parents’ eligibility to qualify for Medicaid may be jeopardized…it may complicate your and your parents’ taxes. Safer strategies…
Become a signatory on your parents’ bank account. You will have the authority to write checks, make deposits and access basic information about the account. But you won’t be able to make changes to the account or close it.
Become a trusted contact on their brokerage account. This formal agreement means the brokerage firm will contact you if there are concerns about activity or exploitation in the parents’ account or your parents can’t be reached.
Ask your parents to set up a durable financial power of attorney. This legal document, drafted by an estate-planning attorney, can name you as the agent to manage your parents’ financial affairs if they are no longer able to. The document does not prevent your parents from making financial decisions for themselves now. In fact, they can craft the document to define what powers they are assigning the agent and when those powers take effect. Important: Draft a power of attorney before a parent shows diminished mental capacity so its validity won’t be questioned.