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Family finances: How to have the talk

Extended family sitting around dinner table chatting and eating dinner
10'000 Hours/Getty Images

Conversation tips for adult children and their parents.

What present can you give that you’ll also then receive? Hint: It’s something children can give to their aging parents and parents can give to their adult children.

The answer? A conversation.

Specifically, a conversation about parents’ finances and their future plans and wishes. While it costs nothing and isn’t tangible, it’s a gift that keeps on giving.

Parents feel supported knowing their children are informed about their situation and are there to help them navigate the unknown future. Children feel relief knowing their parents have a strategy and financial tools in place.

With so much to gain, you’d think these talks would happen easily. But they can be hard for many people to initiate. Parents may be hesitant to share their finances, and children may feel like it’s prying to ask. Plus, families aren’t always comfortable talking about the future because it requires admitting that life does eventually end. But not having the talk can create some tough challenges should a parent suddenly die or become unable to make their own decisions.

If you haven’t discussed finances with your aging parents or adult children—or if you need to have more discussions—use these tips to start the conversation.

Pick the right time to start the conversation

There is no single perfect time to have a conversation about aging parents’ finances, though it’s best to do it when everyone’s able to contribute.

It’s ideal to have the conversation in person when everyone is together. If family members are geographically spread out, take advantage of times together during the holidays. For those who live near each other, be intentional about finding a time to get together. Come prepared for emotional conversations.

Creating a legal document can provide an opening, too. For example, an adult child who recently made a will can use that as a conversation starter to talk with parents about their wills and other papers.

Myra Gehrke, from Brown Deer, Wisconsin, started talking to her children about her finances because her husband passed away when he was 62. She had a meeting scheduled with her Thrivent financial advisor Bryan Jansen, and asked her daughters to go with her. “For me, it was important to have that extra pair of ears there,” says Gehrke. “I can listen, but my head is full after some point.”

A life event like death in the family or a health challenge certainly can open the door for talking about finances. If that doesn’t happen, Jansen, from Germantown, Wisconsin, finds the talks tend to occur when the parents are between 75 and 80 years old.

“Ideally,” says Jansen, “these conversations happen before they’re required.”

Set expectations for the initial discussion

You might get into some specifics about parents’ finances the first time you talk. Or you might just talk more generally and set a future time to get into more detail. Bottom line: You don’t have to cover everything in one sitting. For one thing, there can be a lot to discuss and absorb. For another, parents and children may hit information overload when too much is shared in one meeting.

“It’s best to see this as not just one conversation, but the beginning of a process with more open communication,” says Ted Contag, Thrivent wealth advisor in Edina, Minnesota. That can lead to an unexpected benefit. “Many families discover that doing this can be meaningful and bring families closer.”

Be prepared with questions for the meeting

Before the first meeting, think about questions you have for each other. “Children might ask parents some broad questions, like how are you feeling, do you feel safe or is there anything that keeps you up at night,” says Contag.

Then move into more financial specifics about wills, beneficiaries, health care directives and so on (see a full list below). Children also should plan to ask what their parents’ wishes are regarding charitable contributions and distribution of their assets when they die.

It’s helpful to get in the right mindset. Virginia Morris, author of How to Care for Aging Parents, emphasizes that it’s especially important for adult children to come prepared to listen during these discussions. “If you listen first, you will probably learn something, and your parent will be more likely to listen to your views, in turn.”

“For parents, preparation should start with thinking about how much they want to share,” says Jansen. That should guide them in their next steps, which could include creating a list of assets, the location and organization of legal documents, who they’ve designated as beneficiaries, and their wishes for charitable donations.

What you should have on your discussion list

“Many people don’t know where to start the discussion because they don’t want to step on each other’s toes,” says Contag. “Inviting the parents’ financial advisor to the meeting can help make the discussion easier.” And, he adds, the financial advisor can be a neutral third party should the discussion get uncomfortable.

Start with a broad discussion of the parents’ goals, including the quality of their life and their vision for how they want to spend their time. Parents also might share how they were able to be financially responsible to provide for their family and plan for their own retirement, as well as their desire to serve as role models and leave a legacy. Then Contag and Jansen recommend getting into these specifics:

Retirement & investment accounts

What are their sources of retirement income? Are they taking money out? Do they have enough? Who are the beneficiaries? Have they considered charitable donations or beneficiaries through retirement accounts? Is there a financial advisor they work with?

Healthcare expenses

What are parents’ wishes for how they would be cared for as they age? What plans do they have in place to pay for those expenses?

Advance directives

What are their wishes regarding medical care at the end of life? Have they designated someone who can act on their behalf to make health care decisions?

Power of attorney

Have parents designated someone to make health decisions and financial decisions on their behalf?

Passwords and digital accounts

Where is this information stored? What should be done with social media accounts at death?

Wills & trusts

Is there a will or trust, is it up-to-date and does it capture the parents’ desires?

Life insurance contracts

What is in force? What type of contract is it? Who is the owner and who are the beneficiaries?

Location of legal documents

Are they digital? If physical, are they kept at home or in a safe deposit box? How can they be accessed?

Income & estate taxes

If parents anticipate or desire to leave something to their children, have they implemented a plan that is tax-efficient and structured for a smooth transfer of their assets?

Transfer on death deeds

Do these agreements exist to ensure physical properties are allowed to avoid probate administration?

Wishes for final arrangements

How would the parent like to be remembered? What would they like a memorial service or funeral to include? Are they interested in pre-planning it?

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Tips when starting the conversation

Whether you’re a parent or a child, broaching the topic of parents’ finances can be challenging. What do you say that will break down the barriers around discussing money? Virginia Morris, author of How to Care for Aging Parents, offers these conversation starters. “It might take multiple attempts,” she says. “If you don’t get far in your first few attempts … don’t give up.”

Tips for children talking to parents

  • Be direct: “I know you are completely independent now, but I want you to know I am here to help you keep your independence as you age. To do that, it would probably help if we talk about your wishes concerning your finances, legal issues, housing, etc.”
  • Use a natural opening: If you are your parents’ durable power of attorney, then explain that in order to do that, you need to know about their finances, banks, investments, insurance, passwords and so on.
  • Seek advice: “Dad, Rob and I are saving for retirement and I wondered if you could tell me how you approached that and if you feel you have enough…”
  • Start in the past: Ask questions about your parents’ life, memories, regrets, and then ask them about the future—what they hope for or worry about. Finances will certainly come up.
  • Make a reference: Bring up a situation in someone else’s life or talk about an article you read recently.

Tips for parents talking to children

It’s best to be clear and direct. Parents might start with, “I have named (blank—you or someone else) to be my power of attorney and (blank) to be my medical proxy and I want you to know what that means.” Or, “I realize this might be uncomfortable for you, but I am looking to my future and want to talk to you about those plans….”

Try to include the whole family in the discussion

Even if just one child attends a meeting with parents, as in Gehrke’s case, figure out how to communicate with all of the family afterward to share what was discussed. Parents or the child can send an email summary, have a group phone call or gather in an online chat. If a meeting produces tasks for the children, siblings might want to choose what they take on based on their own strengths and interests.

“Everyone has their gifts,” says Contag, “and there are lots of roles to play in helping parents.”

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Talk to a Thrivent financial advisor

If you’re ready to have this conversation with your aging parent or your adult children and you’re not sure where to start, get in touch with a Thrivent financial advisor.

Thrivent and its financial professionals do not provide legal, accounting or tax advice. Consult your attorney or tax professional.