Not long after I became a mom, I found myself having to care for my own mom. I was totally unprepared to step into the role of caregiver when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. In fact, I was counting on my mom to help me with my kids. Yet, there I was having to help her as I was raising young children and working full-time.
The first step I took in my caregiving journey was getting involved with my mom’s finances. That’s because one of the early symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease is poor judgment when dealing with money.
It’s been almost 12 years since my mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and I started helping her with money matters. For the past eight years, I’ve been managing all aspects of her finances. Looking back, I can see that I did some things right … and plenty of things wrong.
It was like trying to put together a puzzle without knowing what the final picture was supposed to be.
1. Don’t wait for an emergency to have the money talk.
The biggest mistake I made by far was waiting to talk to my mom about her finances until it became obvious that I was going to have to step in to help.
I had plenty of opportunities to ask her for details about her finances before she started having memory problems. I didn’t bother to bring up the topic, though, because it didn’t dawn on me that it was something we needed to discuss.
It wasn’t until my mom’s memory loss became apparent that I realized I had to talk to her about her finances. At that point, though, it was almost too late.
As I learned, waiting to talk to your parents until they’re having problems is a mistake. The conversations can be more emotionally charged. You won’t have a plan for dealing with the emergency. Essential legal documents might not be in place to allow you to help a parent with finances. And, in the case with my mom, I had to gather information from someone who was having trouble remembering things. It was like trying to put together a puzzle without knowing what the final picture was supposed to be.
2. You need the legal right to handle a parent’s finances.
I knew that I wouldn’t have legal access to my mom’s accounts or be able to make financial decisions for her unless she named me power of attorney — the authority to act for her in legal and financial matters. I also knew she had to be mentally competent to sign the power of attorney document.
So when I saw she was having memory problems, I told her to meet with an attorney to draft a power of attorney document as well as a living will that named me her health care proxy to make medical decisions for her. Fortunately, the attorney found my mom competent enough to sign the documents.
Otherwise, I would have been forced to go through a potentially lengthy and expensive court process to be named her conservator. That’s what can happen if you wait until an emergency to start talking to parents about their finances. They might no longer be competent and might not have the legal documents in place to allow you to step in and make financial and health care decisions for them. Then you could end up putting your parents on trial to prove they’re incompetent just to get the legal right to help them with their finances.
Unless you are your parents’ power of attorney or court-appointed conservator, you can’t legally log onto their accounts and make transactions for them. You can’t sign checks for them. You can’t negotiate with bill collectors for them. You have no power to help them.
3. Details matter.
After my mom named me power of attorney, I had the legal right to access her accounts. The problem was, I didn’t know what accounts she had.
We did go to her bank together to notify her account manager that I was her power of attorney. That was simple enough. But figuring out what lines of credit she had open, what bills needed to be paid, and what sort of investment and retirement accounts she had was more of a challenge.
Because I couldn’t count on her to accurately recall everything I needed to know, I had to play detective. I went through her wallet to see what credit cards she had (and searched drawers for cards she wasn’t actively using). I helped my mom go through bills and account statements she got in the mail. I used old tax returns to give me clues.
Still, an investment account with $50,000 in it slipped through the cracks. I didn’t even learn it about it until the investment firm was about to turn it over to the state as unclaimed property.
If you become a caregiver for your parents, you need to know details about all of their accounts, assets, and sources of income. You need to know Social Security and Medicare numbers. You need to know where the will and other legal documents are stored. You need to know about medical and prescription histories. You need to know everything.
The best way to get this information is to ask your parents to share it with you while they’re still relatively young and healthy. They can write it down, store it someplace safe and tell you when and how you can access it.
4. You can’t just go in and take over.
It might seem like I took control of my mom’s finances as soon as she started forgetting things. I did act fast to get her to meet with an attorney to draft essential legal documents. But I didn’t use my role as power of attorney to immediately start making every single all decisions for her. Instead, I stepped in slowly.
For example, I set up online banking to monitor her checking account. That allowed her to continue to feel a sense of independence by handling daily money tasks while I kept an eye on transactions behind the scenes. Then I offered to go through her mail to separate the junk from the bills. My goal was to keep solicitations out of her hands so she wouldn’t send checks to every group that asked for my money. My mom simply saw it as me being helpful.
I didn’t play a more active role until she moved in with me a few years after her diagnosis. Then I took full control of her finances when she moved into a memory care facility in 2012.
Unless you have a parent who truly isn’t capable of handling money tasks or making sound financial decisions, you shouldn’t force your way in. Instead, find ways to provide assistance – by offering to set up automatic bill payments, doing tax returns for them, helping them find better rates for cable TV or phone service. Then it’s a win-win rather than a power struggle. As you offer more and more help, your parent will become more and more comfortable with your involvement in his or her finances.
Most importantly, I’ve learned that you need to be patient, respectful, and supportive. It’s hard enough for your parent to accept the role reversal that is happening. You don’t want to make it worse by making your parent feel like a child. If you act out of love and kindness, most likely your parents will be grateful for your help.
Cameron Huddleston is an award-winning personal finance journalist and author of Mom and Dad, We Need to Talk: How to Have Essential Conversations With Your Parent About Their Finances. She writes about how to help aging parents with their finances for Carefull, a new company building digital services for financial caregivers — those responsible for the day-to-day financial well-being of a loved one.
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