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Michelle Singletary: How to talk to your aging parents about their finances

SHARE Michelle Singletary: How to talk to your aging parents about their finances
It may be a difficult conversation, but Michelle Singletary writes that children need to talk to their aging parents about their finances.

It may be a difficult conversation, but Michelle Singletary writes that children need to talk to their aging parents about their finances.

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WASHINGTON — Can we talk?

Those three words can be the beginning of a difficult conversation. In a romantic relationship, they might mean that something is wrong and a long overdue discussion is needed.

But what if the talk you need to have is with your mom or dad?

You've noticed some things are off. Your mother, who was fastidious about keeping her home clean, now doesn't notice the clutter. Your father was manic about paying bills on time, but now payment notices are stacked on the table unopened.

And then there are the memory lapses. You find yourself in a disturbing loop during your visits as your mom or dad tell you the same story.

If these are concerns on your mind, it is time for the talk. You shouldn't delay it any longer.

Cameron Huddleston nearly waited too long for the conversation with her mother. She began to notice her mom's forgetfulness and that she was asking the same question more than once.

Huddleston initially thought that her mother was just having issues with her hearing. But after realizing something was wrong, she got her mother to update essential estate planning documents. Fortunately, it was before her mother's mental health deteriorated to the point where she would not have been competent to sign the legal papers.

With the proper estate documents in place, Huddleston turned her attention to her mother's financial situation.

But by then her mother, 65, had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's.

The mail was piling up and Huddleston wasn't sure what bills had been paid or where all her mom's bank and investment accounts were located. She had to take over and figure things out without much input from her mother, who could no longer remember key information about her finances. Eventually her mother had to move into an assisted living facility.

Motivated by her own experience, Huddleston, who has been writing about personal finance for more than 17 years, has written "Mom and Dad, We Need to Talk: How to Have Essential Conversations with Your Parents About Their Finances." It's this month's Color of Money Book Club pick.

Huddleston admits that despite her professional history, including now as a money columnist, she failed to act quickly enough.

"I wish there had been somebody to give me the kick in the pants I needed to start talking to my mom about her finances well before she started losing her memory," she writes. "I delayed the conversation until it became apparent that I couldn't put it off any longer. Then I had to scramble."

Don't assume your parent has it all together, she says.

In Huddleston's case, she made some assumptions about her father's handling of his personal affairs. After her parents divorced, her father remarried. He was an attorney and part of his job was drafting wills for clients. No need to worry about him, right?


Her father didn't have a will.

"The awkwardness that arose after my dad died without a will might have been avoided entirely if I had recognized the importance of talking to him about money matters and estate planning," she writes.

Think, Huddleston urges, about all the people you know who've had to get involved with their parents' finances as a result of a health or financial emergency.

"It's so much harder to be reactive than proactive, especially because emotions and the stress of a crisis situation can get in the way of a rational response," she says. "Plus it can be a whole lot more expensive."

One of the keys to a successful talk with your parents is knowing what not to say.

"Remember how frustrated you felt when you were a teenager and thought you knew everything and your parents were constantly reminding you that you didn't? That's how they are going to feel if you start acting like the parent and treating them like naive kids," Huddleston advises.

But what do you do if your parents rebuff your efforts to discuss their finances?

There are several chapters that address this predicament. It helps to figure out why they are unwilling. It could be they don't trust you. And they may have good reason for that. How are you handling your own finances?

Or, your parents may be reluctant to share their information because they fear losing their independence.

Huddleston provides an excellent step-by-step guide to navigate what can be time-consuming, uncomfortable conversations.

You may ultimately not be successful in getting your parents to discuss their finances, but you have to try.

I'm hosting an online chat about "Mom and Dad, We Need to Talk" at noon Eastern on July 25 at washingtonpost.com/discussions. Huddleston will join me to answer your questions on the challenges of talking finances with your own aging parents.