USAA Tips: Conversation starters for talks with your aging parents

Content provided courtesy of USAA | By J.J. Montanaro

When it comes to conversation, sometimes the biggest challenge is getting things started. At least, that’s the case in my experience. And things can be even more difficult if you're broaching an uncomfortable topic, like your parents morphing from their life-long role of caregiver to someone in need of care.

Getting a handle on things should begin with some frank conversations before the family hits crisis mode. But, how do you kick them off? There’s nothing quite like grinding through a laundry list of yes or no questions. With that in mind, here are six open-ended questions to kick off those important discussions with your aging parents:

  1. Tell us about your “what-if” game plan? I wrote “what-if,” but “when” is a more accurate characterization. Your parents probably have at least an idea of what they would like to see happen if they are incapacitated or pass away, but a mere idea isn’t enough. To make things happen according to their wishes, they will need to draft or update a suite of legal documents that may include wills, trusts, powers of attorney (both medical and financial) and living wills. A qualified estate-planning attorney can help them build the plan.

  2. Who is doing what? Whether they are naming an agent to make decisions, selecting an executor or naming a successor trustee to manage things, everyone should be on the same sheet of music as to roles and responsibilities. The result: efficiency and family harmony.

  3. What caused you to last look at your legal documents? Your parents may have laid out a robust plan when you asked them about it, but if they drafted the documents that bring that plan to life decades ago, it could be time for a refresh. Tax laws have changed dramatically and it could also make sense to re-establish their intent with respect to powers of attorney. A financial institution may be less likely to recognize a 25-year-old power of attorney than one drawn up a couple of years ago. In the same line of thinking, determine if all their beneficiary arrangements reflect their current wishes and are synchronized with the other means by which their assets will be distributed.

  4. What type of insurance do you have? The open nature of this question could cause you to chew up a lot of time. But do you really know what’s going on with your parents’ insurance coverage? I happen to know my mom has a long-term care policy, but only because I sold it to her! A firm grasp of your folks’ life, long-term care and health insurance policies is important knowledge. A survey of their insurance could identify gaps or unnecessary coverage and influence care or lifestyle decisions. It could be that policies purchased decades ago don’t make sense today or new ones should be considered.

  5. Who do we need to contact? If your parents already have a letter of instruction documenting their key contacts (attorneys, accountants, etc.), providers (banks, brokerages, insurance companies, etc.) and social media account details in a single document or notebook, that’s fantastic. If not, ask them to get it done. Are there special programs or services for which they’re eligible?

  6. How should we handle things when you’re gone? This question provides a blank slate to dig into the details of their wishes. There’s a lot of ground to be covered, but details might include your parents’ desire on a wide range of topics including: preferred burial location, cremation, type of service, obituary details.

If the thought of diving into these questions doesn’t make you just a bit uncomfortable, you’re probably the exception. However, the easiest route to understanding is to let your parents do the talking. I hope these open-ended questions will help you make that a reality.