As families gather for holiday dinners, some might have had more on their plate than turkey, stuffing and apple pie. Family gatherings can be an ideal time to dish up something extra: the money talk.
Admittedly, it can be an awkward conversation to initiate, mainly because most people don’t like to talk about money. Or their future old age, much less their demise. Others fear their adult children are too nosy or only interested in the size of their inheritance.
“All those things contribute to a reluctance to talk about this, especially with their adult children,” said Jane Clark, senior editor with Kiplinger’s personal finance magazine in Washington, D.C.
But Clark said that’s a mistake. “You want your kids to know how you want your estate handled. Or what you might need for old age. Or what they might expect from you, such as helping with a grandchild’s college. It just gets everyone on the same page.”
Depending on family circumstances, it could be discussing which sibling should handle Mom and Dad’s finances or health care, if needed. It could be helping college kids figure out postgraduate finances. It could be spelling out end-of-life choices, including hospice care, memorial services, even where to find passwords for Facebook and other online accounts.
Sacramento, Calif., resident Patti Stathos, a retired teacher, said she and her husband had such a conversation with her parents around a dinner table last summer. Rather than being awkward, it turned out to be refreshingly reassuring. They didn’t discuss bank accounts or inheritances, but she found out what her parents wanted for a memorial service and other end-of-life wishes.
“We wanted to know so we could grant all their wishes when the time came. You always think you should have this conversation, but the timing was never right. … Afterward, we all agreed: ‘How great it is that we’re all talking about this.’ ”
Having a money conversation doesn’t mean you need to open your bank statement and spell out how much is in your retirement or investment accounts. The point is to create some clarity so there aren’t any surprises.
For instance, parents should let their children know about the existence of a will or trust and who has been designated as the executor or trustee.
“If you can tell your children what you’ve chosen and discuss it with them now, it can eliminate surprises and hurt feelings,” said Trudy Nearn, estate planning attorney with Generations law firm in Sacramento.
Calling a family meeting can be as formal or casual as you like, said Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz, president of the Charles Schwab Foundation, a personal finance education center, based in San Francisco. “It’s a great opportunity to talk, pass on your values, your family history. But it’s also a chance for your kids to come together and say, ‘Mom and Dad, we want to talk about this.’ ”
No matter whether it’s broached by parents or adult siblings, the right tone is crucial. If adult kids come on too strong, it can sound like snooping into their inheritance or implying that Mom and Dad aren’t capable of managing their own finances. Or well-meaning parents sometimes find that their kids are squeamish even thinking about losing Mom and Dad and brush off the topic.
To get started, “mention a friend who’s had a similar conversation with her family. Or a story you read about long-term care costs. Or a friend who’s going into a nursing home and the family is worried about paying for it. There are any number of ways to weave your situation into the conversation,” said Kiplinger’s Clark.
Regardless of age, everyone 18 or older should have two documents – a power of attorney and an advance health care directive – that designate someone to make financial and health care decisions on their behalf, if necessary. Your kids should know where to find those documents in the event something happens to you.
They should also know the name of your bank or investment adviser, financial planner and estate planning attorney. Every holiday season, attorney Nearn said, a client or two will ask to bring in their adult kids for a brief meet-and-greet and to answer any questions. The point is to get introduced ahead of time, so they’re not dealing with a stranger down the road.
“And don’t forget a list of your ‘digital assets,’ such as Facebook and other online accounts,” said Eleanor Blayney, consumer advocate with the Certified Financial Planner Board, who compiled her own list recently and was “shocked” that she had more online accounts than asset accounts. The need for family members to know where to find your digital passwords came home recently, she said, when a friend’s family member suddenly died but no one was able to close down his Facebook page.
Siblings should also discuss who will be their parents’ primary caregiver, if the need arises.
“Often, kids assume the daughter will take care of the parents,” but that’s not always the case, said Blayney. It’s important to choose someone and to let everyone know why.
Same is true if you’ve named a sibling as your children’s guardian, in the event something happens. “People’s lives change, and this once-a-year check-in can be a great opportunity to make sure you and your siblings understand each other’s wishes,” Blayney said.
The earlier money discussions start with young kids, the better, personal finance experts say. “Part of passing the torch,” Schwab-Pomerantz said, “is giving them the tools to manage their money.”