Waiting to talk finance with an aging parent in cognitive decline is a mistake, experts say

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Your elderly mother is getting forgetful and confused. What do you do now?

“Waiting until a senior's decline is evident may already be too late,” said certified financial planner Ralph Bender, founder of Enduring Wealth Advisors in Temecula, California.

When is the right time for adult children to address their parents' aging needs?

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“You should be talking to them about it while they're still working because they're still competent and still able to fund [long-term care] and pay the premiums from income,” he said.

Some events that could trigger these conversations include a parent thinking about downsizing, claiming Social Security, going on a long cruise or finding out one of their friends is going into long-term care, Bender said.

Ask the right questions

“Ask questions to get a clear understanding of your parents' financial situation,” said Patti B. Black, CFP and partner at Bridgeworth Wealth Management in Birmingham, Alabama. “But know that gathering information may take several conversations.”

Here are questions she recommends asking in stages, over a period of time (from least uncomfortable to most):

  • Where do you keep your financial and estate-planning documents? What do you own? What do you owe?
  • Can I meet with your various advisors? “So the adult child doesn't have to [get up to speed] in a crisis,” Black said.
  • Who are your doctors and medical professionals? What prescriptions do you have? Which pharmacy?
  • What planning have you done for long-term care? What kind of care do you want if you need help with bathing, dressing, going to the bathroom? Do you want to stay at home? Move closer to family? Move to a retirement community?
  • What are your wishes regarding end of life care and funeral plans and expenses? If you face a medical crisis, what kind of treatment do you want?

When clients seem to be declining, CFP Richard Colarossi with Colarossi & Williams in Islandia, New York, will see how they respond to basic questions, such as whether they know how much money they have, where their financial documents are and whether they understand what an individual retirement account distribution is.

If their answers seem abnormal for them, he will gently ask for the name of a trusted contact.

“It may be time to consolidate their assets and, if they want a legacy, they may start Medicaid planning to conserve their assets through a trust that takes the assets out of their name,” Colarossi added. “They need to work with an elder law attorney for this.”

Certain paperwork should be completed at this point, if it hasn't already been, according to CFP Rosanne Rogé, managing director at R.W. Rogé and Co. in Bohemia, New York, and a certified senior advisor accredited by the Society of Certified Senior Advisors.

The financial advocate uses the senior's values and preferences to guide financial decisions, which prevents [outcomes] that go against the person's wishes.
Naomi Karp
Aging, law and policy consultant

“We have the client fill out an 'Instructions for My Advisor' form to give us permission to talk to their kids or power of attorney,” she said. “The form's purpose is to address the issue of clients exhibiting behaviors and expressing desires different from their previously stated objectives.”

Rogé also recommends that adult children seek out “authorization to release information” and/or “designation of a representative” forms from their parents' insurance company and other relevant service providers.

Her advisory role has grown beyond the financial, she said, as she has helped elderly clients in ways such as choosing a casket or referring them to area aging agencies.

Get a financial advocate

Aging, law and policy consultant Naomi Karp co-created the Thinking Ahead Roadmap to help seniors protect their money as they age. One of the main components of the guidance is the use of a so-called “financial advocate.”

This person, usually a family member or friend, should be bonded and insured, with some kind of oversight by another party. The advocate can assist with major financial responsibilities, including:

  • Managing daily finances
  • Navigating health insurance and other insurance policies
  • Managing investments and sources of retirement income (including interacting with a financial advisor)
  • Managing home and other property

“It's a way to maximize the older adult's independence,” Karp said. “The financial advocate uses the senior's values and preferences to guide financial decisions, which prevents [outcomes] that go against the person's wishes.”

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