This article was published by Wall Street Journal and written by William Power.
“No, no, no, don’t transfer me to her again,” pleads my wife.
It is a typically frustrating moment in our family crisis, one that many grown children will have to face, ready or not: We are people in our 50s who are unraveling the finances of parents who can no longer do it themselves.
My wife, Julie, is on the phone with the company where her 82-year-old dad had once worked, trying to change the direct deposit of his pension checks to a bank closer to the assisted-living home where he and his wife now live, which is near us in Pennsylvania. Again and again, she is transferred to the person in charge, “Rose.” And every time, the same recording: “This number has been disconnected.”
In the room next to her, I see our once-usable sofa, covered with her parents’ financial papers from the 1960s to now. On the floor sit a metal tub and plastic cups of coins that we had hauled from the parents’ third-floor walk-up in Queens, New York—a small (but heavy) part of their lifetime of earning and saving, nearly all of it offline.
These are the kinds of elder-care issues that people talk about, but until you have lived it, you don’t truly realize all that is involved—not even someone like me who has spent decades as a financial reporter.
Julie’s parents, children of immigrants from Hungary and Czechoslovakia, lived since 1960 in that modest Queens apartment, a two-hour drive from us. The two hardworking people—he was an elevator-system designer and she was a public-school secretary—spent almost nothing on themselves for decades, but put two children through college and poured out generosity when the grandchildren arrived on the scene (including our daughters).
Yet in the year and a half after my mother-in-law joined her husband in retirement in 2013, their health and their ability to keep up with their finances began to fail. Now, neither of them can remember much about their finances—where the accounts are, what bills they need to pay, email addresses, passwords, subscriptions, keys.
My mother-in-law, who used to be a checkbook whiz, and my father-in-law, who had carefully kept decades of paperwork, conceded they needed help. It is such a relief, my father-in-law says now, that he doesn’t have to worry about the grind of family finances. (He also says he’s fine with me writing this article, since he is proud of his daughter’s efforts and hopes others can learn about getting their finances in order before it is too late.)
So since November 2014, Julie and I (mainly Julie) have been trying to reconstruct, clean up and resolve a financial life we were never privy to.
Our situation no doubt will be more common as people live longer, and apart from their grown children. The age and the distance means that an increasing number of these grown children will be invited into their parents’ financial lives, with little clue about any of the details the parents had handled for decades.
We aren’t complaining. We are grateful that all four of Julie’s parents and mine were alive until recently (my mom died in late January), and that Julie’s parents had saved some money. We also recognize this as our duty to parents who were beyond generous with their time and money.
But nothing about it has been either routine or expected. I have watched as Julie simultaneously struggles to make sense of her parents’ financial Rubik’s Cube and deal with their deteriorating health—all while doing the stuff of daily life that used to fill her days. We have learned a lot, though, and some of it might be helpful to others who find themselves in a similar place someday. For our part, what we’ve learned is already affecting our approach to finances—so our own children have an easier time when it’s their turn to sort out our financial lives.
Imagine being dropped into someone’s living room and told, “Here you go, you’re running their house now.”
That is how it felt for Julie when suddenly her parents were in a medical crisis, and she and the family had to start reading the daily stack of bills, find out what to pay immediately and what could be put off until next week—while also looking at her father’s files for the first time, filled with 55 years of retirement-plan statements, confusing notes about small holdings of several stocks tied to his elevator-company job, folders of tax forms, letters once fired off years ago to New York’s mayor and a stack of bank passbooks grouped in rubber bands. Some information Julie needed from her mom was found on notes on scrap paper in various handbags.
Yes, Julie knows an awful lot about her parents—their personalities, their quirks, their histories—but they had never revealed much about their finances. She was pretty much starting from scratch.
She asked to look at her mother’s checkbook, and could tell it was once meticulous, but now had some hard-to-read entries. Yet that was pretty simple compared with just figuring out what they had.
What’s clear is how much the Depression scarred our parents’ generation. That is the only explanation for why Julie’s parents deposited small amounts of money in so many different banks, in the form of savings accounts and CDs. Combined with the small holdings of stock that her dad got through his work, there were more than two dozen accounts to track down, including 12 separate ones at one New York community bank.
Julie started several files and lists of their assets. Every day in the mail, we learned about something new when a statement or bill arrived, and at the same time we sorted through the files as her father tried to fill in some of the blanks. (Hmm, Julie had a small 20-year “juvenile endowment certificate” dated 1966? But was it already cashed in? We think it was.) I give credit to Julie’s parents for being able to avoid debt. There was just no overall accounting of their assets, or clues to whether a certain document was vital or junk.
We’re almost at the end in sorting out what they have; there are one or two accounts we can’t quite figure out.
Everybody is always told how important it is to get a “power of attorney” document, or POA. But let me assure you: As important as you think it is, it is more important than that.
The notarized form gives you the legal right to do financial transactions for someone. When you are stepping in to help run someone’s financial life, you can’t do anything without it, including dealing with banks, pensions, financial advisers, medical facilities. Over and over, you will need to fax, mail or bring in that POA.
(The terminology can get complicated. For instance, what’s a “durable” POA—does it mean the paper wouldn’t yellow? It actually means the document is valid when the elderly person becomes incapacitated.)
Julie knew early on that she needed a POA, but we initially messed up. To save money and time, we downloaded a standard POA form off the Internet and did it ourselves, but we quickly decided to have one done with a lawyer’s help. In recent years, the forms have become more specific, customized for a certain state or a certain bank, to protect against dishonest children using POAs to rip off their elders. That means that even though you think you have a valid POA, you may get asked to fill out a new one. (And find out where a notary is in your town; needing POAs means you will need a notary many times because different entities will want their own versions filled out.)
Here’s one small example of how important the POA became. In May of 2015 we opened a Citibank letter that was sent to Julie’s parents’ old residence in Queens and these words jump off the page: “…possible transfer of your Citibank retirement plans(s) as abandoned property under New York law.” Say what?
It turns out that this issue involves some certificates of deposit in an account that my in-laws had stopped tending to. The two choices: Take my father-in-law two hours away to a Citibank in New York to sign a paper (not advisable, in his condition). Or send in a notarized form to a San Antonio address, using Julie’s POA to verify her identity.
We had already learned about the limits of a POA: It can sail through again and again, and then suddenly get rejected by one bank. In this case, Julie knew the original POA was worthless since Citi, like other banks trying to protect themselves, will ask for its own form to be completed. That meant another afternoon explaining to the folks why they were signing a form, and then another trip to the notary.
Sometimes it is worth it to get outside help: When you are dealing with life’s normal issues with your own children, setting up a parent’s medical-rehab appointments and answering the latest phone call about a parent who has fallen, it can be overwhelming to also be sorting through Medicare forms that you’ve never seen before.
So, hiring a social worker known as a geriatric consultant, if it’s in your budget, can help you keep your sanity, including filling out forms and knowing what rehab facilities make sense in your city. The more-trendy term for these advisers is “aging life care consultant.”
I wouldn’t have thought of needing this, but a friend of Julie’s did, and what a relief it was just to have someone who knew immediately what the legitimate rates are for personal-care help, or the better walkers or shower equipment her parents would need. We also signed on for an “elder lawyer” recommended by the consultant, to look at the parents’ will and the POA.
Finally, while Julie’s parents aren’t wealthy, on the lawyer’s advice we also met with a financial adviser. We could have survived on our own, but even with my experience, it isn’t easy keeping up with someone else’s IRA-rollover deadlines and notices about required minimum withdrawals.
Or consider that someone had to do Julie’s parents’ taxes by April since they couldn’t handle them. That meant asking our tax accountant to add them as clients, too. (It also meant more POA forms needed to be done, the IRS versions.)
Family support, when you can get it, also helps more than I can say. My own parents had preceded my in-laws in needing the same kind of help. My brother and his wife, who live closest to them, led that task, and we compared notes about both finances and medical issues. Sometimes that meant just a text message of support: “Oy.”
When you are invited into a parent’s financial life, you also are going into a time machine.
I don’t just mean the smell of old cardboard and paper. It is startling to be cast back to a generation when everything was offline and decentralized.
Over and over, we find an insurance document or pension papers from the 1960s through the 1980s, and there is no way of telling at first whether it is important or irrelevant. The folks don’t always know. For those of us used to getting information with a few clicks, the detective work needed to get the information about a single document can be jarring.
In some cases, we are the first people to set up online accounts for an investment, with Julie’s parents’ permission. But some of the accounts have to stay on paper, such as the passbook savings at one bank, or the accounts at another bank that didn’t have checking attached to them. That means we couldn’t just sign on to the accounts and consolidate them or close the little ones. It meant more trips to banks, sometimes with her dad when he could travel, to try to close them out or transfer them.
Like doing a renovation of a house, it is amazing how many little things have cropped up when one change is made. Consider that Julie’s dad can no longer drive. It seemed simple enough to sell or give away his car. That meant more paperwork, of course, and we knew we had to mail back his New York license plates.
But I hadn’t thought that someone has to find out where to return the E-ZPass transponder, too, and close the account.
Or the time that Julie noticed a $36.99 AOL Internet service charge that kept showing up on credit-card statements. This seemed a waste for people who are now blissfully off the grid; in fact, the last time my father-in-law checked his email, with our help, all he wanted to do was to blast-delete every message, like taking out the garbage.
So, we dropped AOL by calling up his account, redoing a password since he didn’t remember it, and immediately canceling it.
But then, the next bill had the same $36.99 charge. Ahh, they have a second, slightly different email name included in the one account, created to battle some long-forgotten problem. We had to cancel that one, too, on the phone. Finally, You haven’t got mail.
Another surprise from out of the blue came over the summer. Phone calls from the New York community bank told us that Julie’s parents have an account that was overdrawn for five months and a $12-a-month penalty was being charged. It turned out, that account was set up to make automated payments for their safe-deposit box, and it slowly was drained to nothing over the years, despite the money they had in another account. We headed back to Queens to close that account and the safe-deposit box. (Or so we thought: Earlier this month, we got another bill for the box that no longer exists. Julie sent a reply that she had handed over both safe-deposit keys to them in October. No answer yet.)
The latest case of “money out the window” that my wife discovered was a Costco membership with automated renewal. Fire up that POA again, to get the charge stopped. After all, while Costco is a great place to shop, it doesn’t make sense to have a membership there when you are basically tethered to your bedroom.
We have learned a few things from this experience, which isn’t over. First, the philosophical part, which of course is to appreciate each day, and your family. Before you know it, you’re not able to.
More practically, we learned that while people don’t want to deal with the tough issues with their parents when they are well, it is less traumatizing than when they are in a hospital bed.
The aging life care consultant that our family hired, Debra Drelich of New York Elder Care Consultants, tells me it is rare that people reach out early to deal with these issues.
Instead, it takes a crisis.
She says our situation is a “classic example”—my father-in-law in the hospital after a medical emergency, my mother-in-law alone at home, and Julie running back and forth to New York. Even when Julie’s dad left the hospital, it meant that there were now two people in an apartment alone, in need of supervision.
Instead of waiting for a crisis, people should start mobilizing “when family members see the situation is becoming more challenging but it hasn’t hit the crisis level yet,” says Ms. Drelich. “This type of situation is usually seen when there is a somewhat slow, steady decline in the older person.”
Here is what we’re doing differently for our children:
We aren’t going to leave them with haphazard records, and notes left in handbags. We have written out a clear, comprehensive list of assets, debits, passwords and sign-ons. It is in a safe place that a trusted family member can get to.
It is a chore that is easy to put off, but it took just an hour at first, then we update it as needed.
Still, we were amazed at the number of accounts and passwords we have ourselves. This has been a big help for us right now, and we find ourselves referring to the list all the time; in fact, the usefulness of such a list may be the way to persuade a parent to do the same.
For instance, our Internet service’s wireless router next to our TV even has its own sign-on; having it on our master list has saved us trouble more than once when we had to fix our connection.
Having a router’s private number might not matter to our children when we are gone. But as we have learned, you never know.
Mr. Power is a Wall Street Journal news editor in South Brunswick, N.J. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.