A conversation every family needs to have - MoneySense

A conversation every family needs to have

There are some questions we don’t want to ask our parents, but Bruce Sellery says it’s important to ask them before it’s too late.



My parents are healthy and active, but they are getting older.  Their wills are complete and stored in the safety deposit box, but I feel like there might be other questions about their money that I should be asking. Any ideas?


My parents are also healthy and active. In fact, my mom just returned from a trip to the Antarctic and is currently planning a canoe trip with “Wild Women Adventures.”  She is 76. My dad and stepmother are both are heading off to Alaska in a few months. Hopefully they will all be around for a few more decades, but no one ever really knows. It is really important to ask questions now, before you need the answers. Sure, it can be uncomfortable for all of you, but once you have the conversation you can put it aside and focus on living—like chasing after my 2 year-old daughter, their 12th grandchild.

Kick starting the conversation with your parents

My big sister was the one who kick-started the process. She came across a book at the library called The Hard Questions for Adult Children and Their Aging Parents by Susan Piver. The book inspired us to come up with our own list of questions. My sister sat down with our dad, and just last week I sat down with my mom to have that conversation. Many of the answers I already knew, like where to find the wills, but I was surprised by what I didn’t know, like where do you keep your old tax returns?

Here is an abridged version of the questions we used that relate to finances. (You can review the book itself for other important categories like health care, spirituality and burial details). My recommendation is that you ask the questions, type up their responses, and then have your parent think about them for a bit to ensure that they’re comfortable with their answers. After that I would print it off, have them sign it, and include it with the legal documents.

Questions to ask your parents

Will: Do you have a will? Where is it kept? Who is the attorney of record? What is their contact information? Who is/are the executor(s) of your will? Is/are the executor(s) aware of his/her role?

Safety deposit box: Do you have a safety deposit box? If so, who besides you has keys, where are all copies kept? Where is the location of the box? Is the person holding the second key aware of the procedures for and means of access? Where do you keep your birth certificate?

Banking and credit cards: How many bank accounts do you have and where are they each located? How might we access these accounts should you become incapacitated? If you bank online, what passwords are required to access the accounts? Where do you keep your credit card statements?

Taxes: If we need them, where could we locate your last seven years of tax returns? Do you have an accountant, and if so, what is his/her contact information?

Investments: Who is your financial planner, and what is their contact information? Who would you like to make financial decisions for you if are unable to make them for yourself? Can we review your investments with your financial planner so I understand your complete financial picture? Based on what you know now, will your investments and/or pension be sufficient to pay your expenses in retirement?

Property: Are all of your assets owned jointly or are some in the name of one of you only? If the latter, what happens to those assets if the one who “owns” them is the first to die? Would you like your home to remain in the family, or do you have any other preferences concerning the ownership or occupation of the family home? Where are your household repair/purchase records? Where are the deed and title to your house and any other property? Are there any possessions or property we might not know about or be able to locate that you would like to tell us about now?

Long-term care: If you can’t take care of yourself physically, where would you prefer to live? At home, with care? In an assisted living facility? What if only one of you becomes incapacitated; have you made arrangements for such an eventuality? If so, what are they? If not, what can we do to support and carry out your wishes? Do you have money set aside and specifically designated for long-term health care or assisted living should either or both of you become unable to live alone? Do you know what services are covered by your health insurance?

Belongings: Would you like to speak to us now about your belongings and how you would like them to be divided, even though this may be specified in your will? Which of your belongings would you like us to keep? Are there any special family heirlooms we should know about? If so, what are they and who would you like to have them? Do you have any assets in custodial care, that is, in someone’s name (such as a broker, lawyer or other relative) for safekeeping that you may not want to remain with that person after your death?

Unfinished business: Is there any unfinished (or intended) business such as property sales, banking issues or credit issues we should know about? If you have unfinished business you feel unable to complete, is there any way we can help? Is there any unfinished legal business (such as real estate transactions, complaints or lawsuits) that we should know about? If there is a lawyer involved, what is his/her contact information?

Insurance: Do you have life insurance? If so, is there anything about the policy or the way you would like the money used that we ought to know now? Who are the beneficiaries? Is your policy referenced in your will? Has the face amount been reduced by loans against the policy? Do you have health insurance benefits? Does it cover all your medical needs? Would you like me to review the policy with you?

Burial: Do you have cemetery plots? Where are they? Where is the paperwork? Are they paid in full? What’s the perpetuity agreement (arrangements to care for the plots over time)?

Wildcard: Is there anything that I haven’t asked about that you think I should know?  Is there anything you don’t want to tell me, but you know would be important? Is there anything online or on your computer that you want protected or disposed of? Paypal accounts, Facebook, Linkedin etc.  Are there any other passwords I might need for anything?

It is a long list of questions, I know. But it is worth the investment of time and emotional energy. If there are to be any surprises, it will be better for everyone to know about them now instead of when you’re are dealing with the grief of loss.

Oh, and one final tip: Finish the conversation with a toast to whatever you hold dear: family, health, happiness, golf or gardening.