Telling an elderly parent that they need to stop driving and taking away their car keys is one of the most difficult things adult children have to do.

But there is something that can be even more difficult. At some point you may realize that it’s time for you to take control of your parents’ finances.

“We deal with this all the time,” says Dave Geibel, senior vice president and managing director at Girard, King of Prussia, Pa. What makes it particularly difficult for Baby Boomers, Geibel says, is that their parents, from the Greatest Generation, are typically very private, particularly about their finances. “You have to balance when is it too early or too late,” he says. “Some parents will be crabby and difficult.”

Keep an eye out

Experts say you should look for the following signs that your parents aren’t keeping up with money responsibilities.

“Some of the obvious signs are when you see them getting forgetful, misplacing items, or acting different with finances,” says Kristian Finfrock, president of Retirement Income Strategies in Madison, Wis. “You may see purchases they haven’t historically made or repeated trips to the bank.”

Finfrock says one client discovered her elderly mother was a victim of elder scam. By the time she investigated her frequent trips to the bank, the client discovered that her Mom had sent scammers more than $100,000. The Senate Special Committee on Aging estimates that the elderly lose nearly $3 billion a year to financial scams.

Geibel had a client with dementia who forgot to pay her long-term care insurance premium and lost the coverage.  “They had sent her five notices,” he said.

Have the conversation

“Every situation is different,” says Christine Benz, director of personal finance at Morningstar. “Children’s relationship with parents are so different. Feel them out to see how comfortable they are with you getting involved. From there determine the appropriate case of action.

“You may see purchases they haven’t historically made or repeated trips to the bank.”
Kristian Finfrock, president of Retirement Income Strategies

“In many cases the catalyst for adult children getting involved is some sort of physical illness,” says Benz. “Maybe a parents needs knee replacement. That will sideline them from handling finances. In other cases, adult children may observe some cognitive decline. It’s reasonable to ask if there are things going with finances as well.”

Benz has first-hand experience. “In my parents’ case we had perfect relationship. I work in financial services. I lived two blocks from them. But, even with us we had slipups. Mom had been main bill payer. When mom had a fall, I noticed a supplement policy hadn’t been paid. She was struggling with taking care of my dad who had dementia. Even in relationship where everything seems air tight. There can be slippage.”

Get involved early on

Geibel says the earlier you get involved, the better. “If you see behavior changes, might have to get more aggressive,” he says.

“My advice is get involved while your parents are still healthy, and you can have a rational conversion,” he says. “If you wait until dementia or illness fits in, or your dad dies and mom isn’t ready, it will be harder. Chip away at iceberg instead of coming in with power of attorney.”

Even though the financial planner’s fiduciary duty is to the client, they can play a role in getting help with a client who is deteriorating mentally. In one case Geibel was able to get the son involved when his mother was suffering with dementia.

Sometimes you have to make tough decision,” he says. “You might have to get court involved. It will save you in the long run.”