Tara Siegel Bernard is a personal finance reporter with The Times.
She and her two older siblings tried to have that talk with their mother, a retired microbiologist, on several occasions, but she would promptly steer the conversation in another direction. Then in February, their mother died unexpectedly at age 74 after falling down the stairs of her home in Santa Fe, N.M. And since the family never had the money conversation, once they finally learned their mother had a mortgage, it was already in default.
The mortgage bank said it couldn’t divulge any private information to the family without a death certificate, which was still pending because the exact cause of death wasn’t immediately obvious. So Ms. Crawford and her two older siblings didn’t know how much was owed, or whether they had to catch up on any missed payments.
The bank was willing to withdraw the money owed from a family member’s checking account, but Ms. Crawford, a 43-year-old mother of two young children in Berkeley, Calif., said she and her siblings were unwilling to do that without knowing the exact amount. Besides, they figured, it shouldn’t take that much longer for the death certificate to arrive.
But two months after their mother’s death, there was still no certificate. Around the same time, Ms. Crawford found a package for a loan modification on her mother’s doorstep — the loan was indeed in default. Ms. Crawford’s sister called the bank again. But this time, she decided to throw out some random numbers to the sympathetic bank representative, who responded with “higher” or “lower.” So Ms. Crawford’s sister was able to figure out that they owed about $3,500, and she made the payment.
“There is this period of gray where you are navigating this legal process but the whole system keeps moving and you have to pay the bills,” said Ms. Crawford, a freelance editor.
The three siblings had also had to rummage through boxes and file cabinets when they all initially gathered at their mother’s adobe-style home. They found some items where you might expect them to be — credit cards were in a wallet; a will in her office. But the car insurance policy turned up in their mother’s knitting bag.
“There was always this impression that money was very tight for her, even though we knew from the divorce from my dad that she was well established,” said Ms. Crawford, whose father was a hand surgeon and died just weeks before their mother. “In an ideal world, you have the conversation and take the emotion out of it.”
A lot of the family’s difficulty came from the delay in the death certificate, which the estate planning lawyers I spoke with said was not typical. Had their mother been willing to talk more about her financial affairs, it would have saved them a lot of stress and frustration. Yet there are many adult children just like them, who may eventually need to step in and handle their parent’s affairs for several months or far longer, even during their lifetime.
Here are some ideas on how to get that conversation started, along with several financial and legal fixes that would have made life easier for families like Ms. Crawford’s.
THE TALK “Finances tend to be one of the trickiest topics because people do have traditional ideas about what you should and shouldn’t talk about,” explained Amy Goyer, a caregiving expert at AARP, who is also handling her own parents’ affairs because her father has Alzheimer’s. “It’s a difficult thing to talk about,” so acknowledge that with your parents.
Before you even broach the topic, adult children should think about the sort of information they are seeking, she explained. After all, you need to know much more than whether a will exists. Are there powers of attorney or advanced health care directives in place? What does their health insurance cover? Do they have life insurance? Have they made a list of every single account that they owe or collect money from?
She also suggests using “I” statements, to help prevent the conversation from devolving into a power play. Say something like, “I’m concerned about doing the right thing when you pass,” instead of, “You’re so disorganized and are going to make this difficult for me,” she said.
Bringing in trusted people to the conversation — whether professionals or family — will also help. Adult children might ask to tag along on a visit to their parents’ lawyer or financial adviser just so that they can get educated. “Sometimes there are several siblings and the two sisters do most of the help, but they trust their son when it comes to talking about money,” Ms. Goyer added.
After working with the elderly, Gwen Morgan, a hospice volunteer, was inspired to create a workbook — called the “What if…Workbook” — which has a page for just about everything, from financial account numbers and passwords to contact information for the lawn company and details about last wishes.
“I created it to serve as a communication tool,” Ms. Morgan said, noting that her own father initially didn’t want to provide his account numbers. “I learned that people want to get their affairs together, but don’t know where to start.”
So she tried to make it easy by creating a fill-in-the-blank guide that puts everything in one place so that family members, in the depths of the grieving process, don’t have to work too hard to find what they need.
There are also several Web sites that allow you to scan and store all of your financial and legal documents online, from LegacyLocker.com to Aboutone.com, which Ms. Goyer likes.
THE PLAN Ms. Crawford’s family could’ve covered the missed mortgage payments with some simple planning. And while the bank, JPMorgan, said it could not provide any details without a death certificate, a spokeswoman said it would have accepted a letter from the medical examiner’s office stating that the death certificate was pending. Ms. Crawford said the bank told them that it needed the certificate.
Other methods would have also saved them a lot of hassles. A revocable living trust is often used instead of a will because it allows assets to immediately transfer to the beneficiaries outside of probate, which is the potentially lengthy court-supervised process to settle an estate. For the trust to work, you need to retitle all of the assets to the trust. Then, after the death, a trustee named by the trust maker distributes everything according to the instructions in the document. (The other two big advantages are that the trusts are more difficult to contest than a will, and they allow you to keep your affairs private.)
If the child was a co-trustee, he or she wouldn’t necessarily need a death certificate to carry out the trust’s instructions, though not all families will be comfortable with that arrangement. The trust can also be set up so that the child becomes trustee after the parent dies, becomes incapable or “unavailable to act,” said Laura Twomey, a partner in the personal planning department at the law firm Simpson Thacher & Bartlett.
Of course, setting up a trust may not be worth the trouble, some lawyers said, particularly if you live in a state where the probate process is relatively painless. And there are several easy ways to pass assets directly to your children outside of probate, giving them ready access to cash if that’s necessary.
Joint accounts are clearly a simple option, but not all aging parents will (or should be) comfortable with that. If the parents don’t want the adult child to have unfettered access until after they die, they can add a “payable on death” provision to most bank accounts; and if there is a joint owner, it will go to the beneficiary after the second owner dies. Individual retirement accounts and 401(k)’s can also pass directly to beneficiaries. Even life insurance policies can be collected relatively quickly, said Daniel Rubin, a trust and estates lawyer at Moses & Singer.
Then there’s the question of where to store all of the legal documents and other instructions, and several lawyers cautioned against keeping it all in a safe deposit box. “This may be the No. 1 mistake out there,” said Ann Margaret Carrozza, an estate and elder lawyer in New York. “You can often not access the will or important papers without a court order. These papers have no inherent value. It’s not like jewelry.” She recommends using a strongbox instead.
As for Ms. Crawford, she and her family are still waiting for the death certificate. She managed to close her mother’s mobile phone account with relative ease, and was even able to set up her mother’s cremation over the Web with a document that she and her siblings had to sign. But returning the cable box to the provider requires you to show up at their office with the box — and a death certificate.
Even a durable power of attorney wouldn’t have helped her family, since that provides the authority to handle a person’s financial affairs while they are still alive; those powers cease after the person dies.
“There is no playbook,” Ms. Crawford said. “And the rules are changing depending on who you’re talking to.”
A version of this article appeared in print on May 25, 2013, on page B1 of the New York edition with the headline: The Talk You Didn’t Have With Your Parents Could Cost You.