Holiday Money Talk with Family

12/05/2017 10:15 pm ET

The holiday season is time for families to get together and celebrate. But as the years race by, we might not be willing to notice the signs of aging in our parents — or ourselves. That’s why it’s worth stepping back from the festivities to consider whether all generations are prepared for both the inevitable and the unexpected.

The idea is not to cast gloom upon your celebration but rather to get prepared and organized so you aren’t tempting fate. With that in mind, here are some questions you might want to raise with your parents or your spouse or your adult children.

—Are you organized — just in case? If your memory started failing, or if you were in an accident and unable to act for yourself, do you have a list of all your financial documents and how to access them? I have created a free financial organizer form that you can use to start the discussion. You’ll find a link to it on the home page at TerrySavage.com. You can fill it out online or print out several copies and distribute them to family members. Just the process of filling in the blanks will encourage you to think about the location of wills, estate plans, cemetery deeds, financial accounts, insurance policies, credit card numbers and much more. Put the completed form in a safe place and let your trusted adult child or partner know its location.

—Who will be in control? It’s almost impossible to imagine that you or your aging parents might not be able to make decisions about managing money, investments or even basic tasks like paying bills. Or that someone else might have to make critical health care decisions. These issues are all resolved by having appropriate powers of attorney in place for health care and finances, as well as a revocable living trust that names a successor trustee to act on your or a loved one’s behalf. Now is the time to ask whether those plans have been made — and where the documents are located.

—Is it time to reassess living arrangements? No parent ever wants to leave the long-time family home. Just the thought of packing up is daunting. But studies show that those who leave while they are active enough to make new friends can spend rewarding years in senior or assisted-living communities. Make this a spring project.

The real issue is how to raise these larger issues in the context of a holiday setting. Amy Florian of Corgenius.com teaches financial advisers how to bring up these subjects with their clients. She suggests starting by asking your parents to pass on their financial wisdom, stressing that you don’t need to know the specific numbers of their finances. Maybe ask to join them in a meeting with their financial and tax advisers so you can get to know these contacts.

My own approach is more direct. I simply say, “I’m superstitious, and I think we are all tempting fate if we are not organized and documented!” Whatever works for you, it’s worth a try.

And while we are on the subject of aging parents, Florian has some advice for adult children in the form of four things to look for as indicators of dementia or Alzheimer’s:

—Forgetfulness, particularly loss of short-term memory, as opposed to long-term memory.

—Personality changes, such as becoming more angry, aggressive or paranoid, or displaying inappropriate behavior.

—Problems with words, such as the inability to read, the use of similar but wrong words, or not remembering the name of a common item

—Loss of executive function, such as the inability to do multi-step tasks such a following a recipe or a schedule of daily activities

If your parents have reached this stage, it’s important to set aside time for a family discussion and planning session — before it’s too late and a court must get involved. Even worse, failure to recognize these warning signs sets older people up for financial fraud and elder abuse.

Start by finding an attorney who specializes in elder law — to represent the parents, not the children. Search at the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA.org). A lawyer can help get all the relevant documents in order, keeping competent parents in control of their lives but assuring that the future is well planned.

This sounds like a tough holiday discussion, but it’s worth it. And that’s The Savage Truth.

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