Caring Currents

5 Ways to Check Up on Your Parent's Finances

Last updated:

January 08, 2009
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Worried that your parents are losing control of their finances but not ready to talk to them about it — or they're reluctant to talk to you? 5 ways to investigate without making waves.

  1. Find Out If Their Property Taxes Are Up to Date.This is one of those "canary in the coal mine" indicators that's fairly easy to check into, at least in most places. And it's terribly, terribly important: when we finally took this step in regards to my mother's house, we discovered that she hadn't paid her property taxes in more than ten years and her home was three months' away from being on the auction block. Look up the number for the tax assessor's office of your parents' home county in the government listings at the front of the phone book, or find it online. Call and explain that your parents have misplaced their property tax bill, and that you're calling to make sure their payments are up to date. If the person who answers is reluctant to give you this information, ask to speak to a higher-up, then explain that your parents are becoming forgetful and you want to make sure this important bill is paid. The information will be easier to look up if you have a parcel number; some counties will even allow you to look this information up online if you know the parcel number. If you don't, though, your parents' names and address should suffice. Since of course the tax office wants the bill paid too, they are motivated to cooperate.
  2. Take a Peek at Bills and Account Statements. Let's  be frank; sometimes it's necessary -- and justified -- to snoop a little. One of the first signs that older folks are loosening their grip on practical matters is mail piling up unopened -- or opened, but not attended to.  If this is happening at your parents' house, take a private moment to go through the most recent batch of bills and account statements and see what's up. This will either reassure you that the basics are under control, or alert you to what needs urgent attention.
  3. Contact Utilities and Ask If Your Parents' Bills are Up to Date.The gray area between when an older person's memory and abilites begin to fade, and when their problems become serious enough to warrant guardianship is very, very large. And denial is a huge factor to be negotiated -- seniors whose faculties are in decline often refuse to acknowledge how serious the situation is becoming. Meanwhile, for those of us caught in this situation --  and worried to death about our parents' well being --  sometimes it's necessary to sneak around a little. If you're concerned that your parents are not keeping important bills up to date, one way to investigate is to call the local utility companies and ask if their accounts are up to date. You may be asked to show some type of documentation, such as a power of attorney for finances, to establish your relationship and authority -- but more often than not, you can get around this. Go in person if possible, and be chatty and friendly with the receptionist. If you're inquiring over the phone and your first contact is uncooperative, ask to speak to a supervisor or person in authority. Explain that you're very worried about your parents, and want to make sure that delays in payment won't result in important services such as power, heat, and the phone being turned off. My experience with such situations was that people were very sympathetic and helpful; in fact, it's quite likely that they have faced the same dilemma themselves.
  4. Look for Evidence of Gambling or Participation in Sweepstakes, Scams, or Questionable Investments or Purchases. One friend of mine figured out her dad was no longer managing his financial affairs competently when she saw sweepstakes notifications and brochures about timeshare purchases on the dining room table -- and her dad hated to travel. Another found a stack of gambling receipts stashed in her mother's top drawer, and they totaled more than her mother's monthly social security check. If you see something alarming on a visit, inquire gently and casually, as you would about any other purchase. "Oh, what's this -- are you planning a trip?" Try not to sound accusing or jump to conclusions, or you'll put your parent on the defensive and won't get far. If you discover the situation has become alarming, gather the information and make an appointment to discuss it at a later date. Then find out as much as you can about what was spent and why, alert any other siblings, and call a family meeting to talk it over.
  5. Ask Your Parents to Give a Copy of Their Will to the Executor. One tactic that usually works, even with those reluctant to talk about finances, is to suggest that your parents make sure whoever they've chosen as executor has a copy of their Will.  Since the executor is usually a family member, it allows you and your siblings to see a copy of the will in advance. If it's very out of date, leaves out significant assets, or suggests that there are enough assets that they really should include a living trust,you'll be able to discover these issues. Then at some later point, the sibling who's been chosen as the executor can bring them up in a non-threatening manner. Example: "Mom, I was cleaning out some files and stumbled on the copy of your will you gave me to keep, and I noticed that your house and major accounts aren't in a trust and they probably should be. Would you like me to help you set that up?"

If your check-up indicates that your parents could benefit from some help in managing their day-to-day finances, it's time to open that discussion with them. It's a touchy subject, to be sure, but the consequences of not talking about it are serious enough that you need to give it a shot, no matter how awkward.

A good, practical first step is to suggest that your parent set up a power of attorney (POA) for finances. This document designates you or another family member to act on your parent's behalf so you can pay bills, check account balances, and handle other financial transactions both with and without your parent's involvement. At first the concept may sound intrusive or threatening to seniors accustomed to privacy, but ironically for many families having a POA in place is the key helping parents remain independent longer. In my experience, having a power of attorney in place was a lifesaver as my mother gradually lost her faculties; with it, I was able to assume management of her day-to-day care and allow her to remain safely and securely in her home.