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Financial Education for Everyone

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October 20, 2006

Many people will go out of their way to avoid talking about illness, death and money, especially when aging parents are concerned. But the reality is, we all get older and eventually need help from others. The more prepared you are today, the easier it will be for everyone down the road.

If you haven’t yet had these discussions with your parents, it may be time to start laying the groundwork so your parents know their wishes will be followed when they’re no longer able to care for themselves. Don’t avoid these topics if your parents bring them up, and if they seem reluctant, try discussing your own legacy preparations to break the ice.

Some important documents you should discuss with your parents and other family members include:

A will. Without a will, many decisions about who will inherit your assets, how your estate will be managed and who will care for any minor children will be determined by the state, despite your preferences. Do-it-yourself kits are available, but if trusts, complex estates or large amounts of money are involved, use a lawyer to draw up the will.

Durable power of attorney. This document specifies who will have the legal authority to manage your assets and financial transactions if you become incapacitated and are unable to do so yourself.

Medical care documents. A health care proxy, also known as a health care durable power of attorney, specifies whom you want to make medical decisions for you if you’re unable. Similarly, a living will (or health care directive) tells doctors your wishes regarding which medical treatments and life-support procedures you do or don’t want.

There are dozens of variations on these and other legal documents you may need to know about. The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) offers detailed information on its Web site (at www.aarp.org/families/legal_issues), including an extensive glossary of legal terms.

It’s also a good idea to know where your parents keep other important documents so that you can deal more effectively with any crisis that may arise. Key documents include: financial information (bank accounts, investment accounts, real estate holdings and automobile titles); medical and life insurance policies; contact information for doctors, lawyers, financial advisors and other professional service providers (give these providers your information as well); funeral and burial plans; and locations safe deposit boxes, real estate deeds, birth certificates, marriage licenses, Social Security cards, etc. Make copies of these documents that you can store safely.

Practical Money Skills for Life, a free personal financial management site sponsored by Visa Inc., features information on many issues related to elder care that may help you prompt discussions with your parents around their financial and health care needs (www.practicalmoneyskills.com/eldercare).

Equally important as having these conversations with your parents is documenting your own financial and medical care preferences and compiling your records. Discuss this with your spouse — and your children if they’re old enough. If you were to die accidentally, the last thing you’d want for your relatives to deal with is sorting out your finances.

These are not cheerful topics, but better to deal with them now than during a crisis, when you’ll want to focus your efforts on helping your loved ones.


This article is intended to provide general information and should not be considered health, legal, tax or financial advice. It's always a good idea to consult a tax or financial advisor for specific information on how certain laws apply to your situation and about your individual financial situation.