Wall Street Journal “Love and Money” columnist Jeff D. Opdyke offers a compassionate and highly effective handbook designed to help elderly parents manage their money. Protecting Your Parents’ Money is the essential guide to helping Mom and Dad navigate the finances of retirement, covering such topics as understanding Medicare, preventing elder fraud, and the hunt for a quality, affordable retirement home. Protecting Your Parents’ Money is a book everyone should own, as members of the Baby Boomer generation find themselves dealing with the many financial problems surrounding aging parents, and face their own future as seniors.
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About the Author
Jeff D. Opdyke has written about personal finance, family finance, and the investment markets for Tgiehe Wall Street Journal since 1993. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife, Amy, and their two children.
Read an Excerpt
Protecting Your Parent's MoneyThe Essential Guide to Helping Mom and Dad Navigate the Finances of Retirement
By Jeff D. Opdyke
Harper PaperbacksCopyright © 2011 Jeff D. Opdyke
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Talk
This is the single most important chapter in this book. I
placed it first in line for one overarching reason: Just about
everything else you will read in these pagesand all your
efforts at helping Mom and Dad manage or deal with the
financial aspects of agingwill work out so much easier for
you and your family if you first learn to communicate with
Everybody thinks they know how to communicate
because, well, we've all spent thirty or forty or fifty years or
more expressing our thoughts and feelings and emotions.
We've learned how to talk to one another. So, really, how
difficult can chatting with parents be? Just ask the questions
for which you want answers and then catalog what Mom and
Good luck with that.
I promise that for many, many families the necessary
answers won't be that easy to pry loose. Just as you are likely
quite private with your own finances, your parents are just as
private with theirs. They easily could look suspiciously on
your unexpected queries about their money, what they spend
their Social Security checks on, where their bank accounts
are located, and their plans for distributing an estate when
they pass on. As such, don't be surprised when Mom or Dad
or both delicately or brusquely brush aside your advances,
stall providing adequate answers, or even express outright
worry or anger over perceptions that you might be out to
wrest control of their financial freedom or, worse, rob them
of their assets before they're dead. Dramatic? Yes. However,
the news in the last decade or so has been filled with so many
sad tales of elderly victims of financial abuse, statistically
perpetrated most often by a family member, that aging
parents at times can't help but question a child's intentions. In
short, Mom and Dad, at least in their own minds, have real
reason to fear your unwanted intrusion into their personal
financial lives. As a result, the answers you want aren't always
as forthcoming as you might expect.
And those parents who do want to talk, meanwhile, the
ones who implicitly trust their children and want their kids
involved in making the big and small decisions of old age, don't
always know how to tell you what they want to say for fear that
you don't want to hear it. They don't know how to ask the
questions that have them concerned, and they worry they'll
be thought of as stupid or financially incompetent. Sometimes
they simply don't know how to begin the conversation.
Parents, of course, aren't the only ones incapable of
expressing themselves. Kids, too, feel intimidated asking Mom
and Dad highly personal questions about an aspect of their
lives that might always have been private. Kids often assume
parents don't want to talk, and so they never raise the questions
they need answers to in order to understand whether
their parents might need help with some part of the day-to-
day finances. Others simply refuse to contemplate Mom or
This lack of communication can be a major problem in
the unique relationship between elderly parents and their
grown children. Because once it's too late, it's much too late.
When a parent falls ill or dies, you're suddenly thrown into
the tempestunprepared for all you will have to confront in
managing the situation. Take, for example, the simple safe
deposit box. All you need to know is the location of the bank
and the key to get into it, right? And since you already know
where Mom banks and the desk drawer where she keeps the
key, you've got that covered; you know that when the moment
comes you can at least access the box to gather the paperwork
she's kept stuffed in there ever since you were a kid.
However, you're in for a stressful confrontation with that
bank at precisely the moment in life when additional stress
is the last burden you want. When you try to access the
safe-deposit box, Mom's banker will bar you, legally, from
even entering the vault if you're not listed on the account.
While some states will allow heirs or executors to access a
safe-deposit box when an owner dies, that's not the case
everywhere. So when you're in desperate need of the will or
the insurance contract or burial papers or some other
document you know is in that box, you might find you have no
access. You'll have to hire a lawyer to help you jump through
the various hoops required to prove that you legally have
a right to open the box. Had you and your parents had the
appropriate discussion about what's in the safe deposit box
and how they want to handle who has access to it in an emergency,
you wouldn't be in such a frustrating position when
emotions are already running high and the last complication
you want is an inability to provide for your parents.
It all begins with a few simple words: "Mom, Dad . . . can
When to Have The Talk
Life is rarely considerate enough to dish up a perfect
moment for every key episode we must live through. In some
families an event might transpire that clearly exclaims in its
subtext, "Now is that perfect moment. Act!" That could be
the death of one parent, a hospitalization that leaves Mom
or Dad incapable of handling money matters, or it could be a
financial emergency in which a parent seeks money from you
to cover an expense. If those situations arise in your life, take
advantage of them in the moment and have The Talk.
Not every family will have that opportunity, though, and
the absence of a dramatic event doesn't negate the need to
talk to parents about their finances. Instead you'll have to
fabricate a perfect moment, and, well, there's no time like the
presentbecause you just never know what the future might
hold or how soon that future might arrive.
The time to initiate The Talk is when questions about
your parents' financial self-sufficiency become an issue you
spend time thinking about yourself. Unless your only
concern is when you're going to get your hands on your parents'
money (and that's not a healthy concern), thoughts about their
financial life generally don't just pop into your head without
reason. You've probably noticed something subconsciously
maybe even overtlywhen you're with your parents or when
you're talking to them. Pay attention to those instincts. You
might not immediately be able to pinpoint exactly what has
you concerned, and that's fine. The point isn't to immediately
recognize the worrisome issue, but rather that you are
worried and that you want to better understand your parents'
finances so that you can assist them effectively, if and when
the times comes to do so.
Sometimes parents will signal when they want to have
The Talk. So listen to what they say and pay attention to
the context. A parent, for instance, might be fretting about
paper losses suffered in the stock market or worrying about
replacing a car, and they're seeking your advice. Maybe
they're complaining about a large medical bill or an overdue
utility statement that has destroyed their budget. Such
comments might well be a parent's way of trying to draw you into
a conversation they've wanted to have with you for a while
but were afraid to initiate for any number of reasons. Pounce
on those opportunities. This is your chance to open up a
much more thorough discussion about their finances without
having to be the one to broach the subject first.
Whatever the case, remember that you're not just helping
your parents; you're helping yourself and your own family.
Ultimately, helping your parents manage their finances
means you're running two householdsyours and theirs
and anything you can do now to prepare for that possibility
will be preparation well worth the effort.
So initiate The Talk sooner rather than later.
Breaking the Ice
Money is taboo, no two ways about it. More times than
not, people are reluctant to share the innermost details of
their wallet, even with their own offspring, out of fear they'll
soon be separated from their own money in some reprehensible
That taboo is particularly strong among the elderly, who
typically grew up in an era where money simply wasn't
discussed openly among family members. Think back: Did your
parents talk to you about their income, household expenses,
or budgeting worries? Probably not. And that probably hasn't
changed all these years later.
Along with privacy, there's also the issue of pride. Every
adult wants to feel capable of managing the finances of daily
living. Indeed, starting at an early age money management is
a large part of what many of us define as independence. Even
when young kids first begin to learn that green paper can be
traded for toys at the store, they want to be able to control
their own (albeit limited) financial resourcesif only to buy
as many toys as they can. Little wonder, then, that broaching
the subject of Mom or Dad's personal finances naturally
raises defenses in parents who have been in control of their
own pocketbook for decades. And some people, even in their
dotage, simply do not want to be reminded of their mortality,
which is clearly a central point when you ask your parents
about the end-of-life issues that are inherent in The Talk.
As such, breaking the ice is a game of perception. If you
come on too forcefully, as though you are trying to commandeer
their money for their own good, Mom and Dad will shut
down, concerned that you might only be after their money
for your own uses. If you come off too meekly, as though
you're just a friend asking if everything is OK, they'll easily
deflect your questions and say, "We're fine; there's no reason
to worry about us, Honey," or something along those lines.
You want an approach somewhere in the middle of that
spectrum. On one hand, you want to be heartfelt and sincere.
On the other, you should be clear that while you might not
try to delve into every last aspect of their financial life, you're
not taking no for an answer because understanding how you
might be called on to help or take control of assets and bills
and whatnot in an emergency is that important to you.
Some personal finance publications encourage a backdoor
approach to this conversation and suggest you start by sharing
your own experiences firstsomething like: "You know
my retirement plan really took a beating in the market crash.
How is your account holding up?" Some suggest using the "I
have a friend" approach, as in: "I have a friend and this, that,
and the other thing just happened to his/her mom/dad. Has
anything like that happened to you?"
I'm not saying don't try these approaches; they might
work with some parents. But they are tepid at best and easily
brushed aside by parents who feel uncomfortable talking to
you about such a personal subject, regardless of your own
experiences or those of that "friend."
The best approach is at once the simplest and, for some
people, the most difficult conversation starter:
"Mom/Dad, I want to talk to you about your money. I know
it's a private matter, and I know you might not feel entirely
comfortable talking about it at this very moment, but I'd
like to make some time to sit down with you and understand
your finances so that if anything ever happens I can help you
deal with it in whatever way you need me to help. If there are
financial items or accounts that you don't want me to know
about, that's fine. But I would like to know what accounts and
what documents are necessary for managing your household,
your health, or your finances in an emergency or when you
True, summoning the gumption to raise the issue might
not be as easy as that simple string of words might suppose.
And your parents might not immediately open their wallet to
reveal the secrets to their financial kingdom right then and
there. But they're much more likely to respect your approach
because it clearly leaves them in control of the process and
tells them you're not out for selfish gains. Moreover, they are
quite likely to see that you're being sincere about wanting to
be there to help them when they ultimately need the help of
someone they want to be able to trust. That will go a long
way in setting a parent's mind at ease. And even if your
parents aren't inclined to open up at the moment you raise the
topic, there's a very good chance you will receive a phone
call in the not-too-distant future with an offer to sit down
and talk about finances. When that day arrives, you're also
quite likely to find that Mom/Dad is not only willing to talk,
they might even have an envelope waiting for you that
contains the keys to their personal financial vault: the locations
of their accounts, copies of their insurance policies and other
important paperwork, and instructions on how they want
you to handle their end-of-life issues.
For parents who do want to talk but have been just as
anxious as you about diving headlong into such a potentially
emotionally charged conversation, breaking the ice in
a direct, honest manner gives them the entry they've been
looking for. They might jump at the chance to finally open up
and share with you all this information they've been waiting
to divulge. At the end of the day, the elderly want to feel
secure, and part of that security comes in knowing there is
someone they can trust with their finances.
Some people, of course, will still feel queasy questioning
Mom or Dad directly about money and end-of-life preparations.
If the spoken word is a problem for you, then write
a letter or e-mail. Your noteagain, honest and direct
should clearly explain what you're seeking. Detail why the
information is so important to youand stress that you want
to be able to help effectively when that help is needed most.
Also explain honestly why you're writing a letter instead of
talking face-to-face (maybe you feel uncomfortable talking
about this issue with the people you love most because it
raises in your own mind those issues of Mom and Dad's
mortality; maybe you know you'll get too emotional talking to
Excerpted from Protecting Your Parent's Money by Jeff D. Opdyke Copyright © 2011 by Jeff D. Opdyke. Excerpted by permission of Harper Paperbacks. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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