Try these tips for a smoother conversation.

By Real Simple
Updated March 05, 2014
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A version of this article originally appeared on

When he was 31, John Prendergast knew it was time to seriously discuss money with his mom and dad. Not because he needed help, but because he worried his aging parents would eventually need his. “My parents were much older compared to my peers, about the same age as everyone else’s grandparents, and had a number of health problems,” he says. “I was beginning to do shopping and other weekly chores and had to begin to think about what would happen when that wasn’t enough.”

What if? John thought. What if mom and dad suddenly couldn’t take care of themselves, including their finances? What if one parent died and the other were left needing financial help? Was he prepared to step in?

Are you prepared to step in? It’s a hypothetical situation that’s proving real for millions of adult children. In fact, more than 30 million adults are taking care of their aging family or friends over the age of 50, including offering financial help, according to AARP.

Here is some advice to help you navigate this sensitive—but all too important—issue:

Don’t Wait Long

You may think that just because your parents are in their early 50s or 60s there’s no need to have a serious talk about their finances yet. After all, you may just be getting financially settled, yourself. But the sooner you start, the better especially if one of your parents has an illness or is disabled. “The good news,” John says, “is that we began the conversation early enough to get them set up so that when the worst did happen, my dad died, we had a plan that worked for my mom.”

Be Persistent

Naturally, your parents may be resistant to talking to you about their finances. Money was not exactly dinner table conversation growing up, which may make it even more awkward to discuss when you’re an adult. But don’t let that deter you from getting the conversation going. Who knows, your parents may in fact want your help but are too shy or too old-fashioned to reach out. Or, indeed, they may simply feel it’s none of your business. But more often than not it does become your business. John says he didn’t have a whole lot of luck the first time he approached his parents to talk money. He admits his approach wasn’t the best at first, nor did it help that his parents were sensitive talking to him about money. “I was clumsy and started the conversation about their house and what they were going to do with it. They looked at me like I was insane. ‘We’re going to live in it’ was the response I got. When I pushed they got defensive. I backed off. It took a couple of different starts like that.” And eventually they opened up, he said—thanks to being persistent.

Get Help From Other Relatives

You may want to loop in a sibling or a close relative to help you communicate with your parents. The idea is not to ambush Mom and Dad, but to show that you support them and that you care. It helps to bring up examples of other relatives, say older uncles or aunts, who did (didn’t) reach out to their children to discuss their finances, as well. That could be a familiar ice-breaker to open up your own dialogue and to point out what worked and what didn’t.

Get Organized

AARP suggests adult children get the following financial information from their parents in case of an emergency:

  • Bank accounts and passwords
  • Their financial professionals like accountants, attorneys and brokers
  • List of current monthly bills and how to pay them
  • Insurance policies
  • Tax returns
  • Credit reports
  • Medical records and doctor contact information
  • Estate planning documents such as their will

Make Them Feel in Control

For some parents, the idea of getting old and needing financial help from their children can be particularly daunting. They’re still the parents and they’re used to making the important decisions. Put them in the driver’s seat when talking to them about the “what ifs” of aging and not being able to manage their finances, rather than only telling what you think. For example, “Mom, Dad, what if you become disabled? What if one of you passes away in the next 10 years? Do you want to live in the same house?” “Ask them what they want you to do in various scenarios that are likely. Parents are good at telling us what to do,” says Prendergast.

Seek Additional Help

You and your parents should seek third-party help to resolve unanswered questions and for additional guidance. If your parents have an estate-planning attorney or a financial advisor, you may want to get acquainted with the professionals who are helping to manage their finances. There’s also online help available at the AARP Money Management Program and the National Council on Aging.

Written by Farnoosh Torabi

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