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"Mom, Dad, Let's Talk": A Guide for Adult Children

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In our society, money means control and power. It’s natural for parents to resist losing or giving up this control, especially if declining physical abilities have already made them feel fearful or impotent. That’s why clumsy inquiries about their finances by an adult child, even one they have always trusted, may be met with defensiveness and rebuff. Here are some ways for children to create a dialogue that reassures them their control is still respected:

1. Don’t wait for a crisis. It’s much more difficult to talk about plans and wishes in the middle of an emergency.

2. Proceed slowly. You may have to persist for several weeks or months, sharing pertinent articles and gently mentioning your need for peace of mind about your parents’ plans, in order to win their agreement to talk.

3. Respect your parents’ right to keep their affairs private. If they don’t want to share their financial picture with you, ask them to have a qualified advisor give it a “safety check.”

4. Use language that isn’t threatening. For example, say, “What would you like to do with your estate?” rather than the more loaded “What would you like to do with your money?” Instead of a question about inheritances, asking “What would you like your legacy to be?” can open up a dialogue on values, wishes, and goals.

5. Don’t infringe on your parents’ independence by implying that you expect an inheritance or gift. If they feel like being generous with their money, that’s up to them.

6. If you’re asking for help now, always give them an opportunity to refuse gracefully. (“If you aren’t able to do it, I can accept that. We’ll manage another way.”)

7. Keep their wishes paramount. If they would rather use their money to travel instead of helping you with a down payment on a vacation home, gently remind yourself that it’s their money.

8. Be sure to keep your siblings informed. If they’ve designated you as the point person, try to head off problems by religiously keeping all of them up to date.


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