What to do when your parents haven’t planned

by | Oct 18, 2018

Your parents have been adults for as long as you can remember. They always had things in hand. They paid the bills, put a roof over your head, bothered you about cleaning up your room and doing your homework, and cried at your graduation/childbirth/other meaningful milestone activity.

As you became an adult, you started to realize that this whole being a human and raising humans thing is actually pretty difficult stuff. You started to realize that, on occasion – when they weren’t being the amazing rock stars you know they are – your parents made mistakes, errors in judgement, and straight up bad decisions. You started to recognize that, not only did they not know everything, there were times when they were missing a whole ton of information. Sometimes, that was amusing. Other times, well… not so much.

You’ve been diligently reading your news articles, magazines, and (of course) the Spring newsletter to stay on top of the data that you need to ensure your financial future is well-managed and your estate is well-planned. You’re starting to feel pretty comfortable with the knowledge you have.

Lately, you’ve been wondering: Are your parents in good financial shape? If they’re not retired, do they know what they need to do next? If they are, do they have enough to manage for potential pitfalls? Have they planned their estate so that you and your siblings don’t end up fighting while you’re crying? What don’t they know that you think they should?

Now you’re worried and, let’s be honest: talking to your parents about money is hard. It’s possibly harder than that super-late birds and the bees conversation they tried to have with you after you’d already had explicit classes in both school science classes and hallways. Except, that time, you were both embarrassed. This time, someone might get angry.

Why angry? Because money is personal, and for a lot of people, it’s shameful too. A lot of us are walking around with this idea that we’re not actually grown ups if we don’t know everything there is to know about managing our money and our future.

You already know that you don’t need to be ashamed. You already know that you weren’t born having this knowledge, and while you are interested in finance, you haven’t spent all of your schooling and working life to become an expert. You understand that there is no shame in asking for help from those nerdy folks who literally spend all of their time talking, learning, and thinking about money.

You know all of these things. You’ve learned to separate your self-worth from your net worth. But your parents? It’s possible they haven’t. This could be a really touchy subject. You’re not sure if you should bring it up, and if you should, how.

Let’s Talk About Death (and Incapacity)

Yeah, that’s not fun for anyone. No one wants to talk about it, and your parents, who are usually closer to it than you are, probably want to talk about it even less. If this conversation isn’t awkward enough, even asking about it might make someone think that all you – as their child – care about is how much stuff you’ll get when they die.

Nobody feels great there.

So how do you get started?

First, tell your parents that this is a thing you’ve been doing (because you have, haven’t you?). You’ve put your estate plans in order, got yourself a Will, named guardians for your kids, bought some life insurance, and even planned for incapacity. Bumps on the head can happen to anyone, at any time. It isn’t an ageist conversation.

Start with sharing with your parents what you have learned, who you’ve talked to, and why you think estate and incapacity planning is important. Share articles you’ve found, like this one.

Tell your parents that now that you know how important this planning is, you’d love it if you knew that they had their plans in order. You can disclaim any interest in the contents, beyond knowing whether you should learn about executor and/or power of attorney duties.

Keep the focus on the plan and your responsibilities. Stay away from exact numbers. Unless, of course, they want nothing more than to talk to you about dollars. We’ve definitely run into parents like that. They’re rare, but they do exist. #notallparents.

Let’s Talk About Debt

Ouch. With interest rates low but starting a slow march upwards, it’s entirely possible your parents took on some debt in the last 10 years. Many people have. It’s possible they are struggling, and it’s possible you’re worried about them.

Again, start with you, and focus on plans. Tell them about the work you’ve done to get yourself out of debt. Stay away from morality judgments – having debt isn’t a moral thing. It’s not a bad person/good person thing. It’s simply a decision that was made at a time when it made sense to the borrower.

Tell your parents about the things you learned getting out of debt. Tell them about the people you know who helped you create a cash flow plan (so much better than a – ugh – budget). Share information you learned.

Don’t ask for specifics – unless they want to share. Don’t ask them to take action, ask them to learn. Everyone takes time to get to the point where they ask for help. Give them some details and let them get there in their own time.

Let’s Talk About Retirement

Got some pre-retirement parents? This can be a sunnier conversation. You can start by asking them when they’re going to take some much-deserved downtime, how they think they may spend their non-work days, and if they’ve talked to anyone about creating a plan. Explain to them what you know about the difference between investment planning and retirement planning (or share some of our articles), and ask them if they’ve talked to anyone about the recent changes to the Canada Pension Plan (that one might spark some interest!).

Tell them you’d like them to have all the tools in their tool belts that they’ll need to create a great future.
Again, focus on learning and planning; they will share the details they feel comfortable with.

Let’s Talk About Assisted Living

Even worse than debt and death (which is why you got that happier break there with the retirement discussion) can be recognizing that, one day, you may not be as healthy and vital as you are today. Admitting that to your kids can be a hard slog.

Start early and stay diplomatic. Before they need any help, tell them that this is something your financial planner asks you about: If you needed help, what kind would you want? Would you want to stay in your home as long as possible? Would you consider a facility? If so, what would you want that facility to have for you (example: dance lessons, shopping trips, a library)?

Knowing the answers to these questions earlier than later can help you help your parents if, in the future, they’re not in a position to tell you what’s happening for them. This leads back to a conversation around legal incapacity documents. Have they appointed Power of Attorney? If not, can you point them in the direction of a good lawyer?

For the parents that might be needing care already and are loathe to admit it, you’re in a tough situation. If they’re already having a hard time getting around the house or cooking their own meals, find a great facility with an active community and see if you can sell them on it. Talk about how great it is there, and how they do – or do not do – all the things that could make your parents happy. Facilities aren’t a death sentence, but recognize that your parents could honestly feel that way. Go gently and do your best to make it their idea.

Also, ask your parents who their key advisors are, so that if you ever need to act on their behalf in an emergency, you don’t have to rifle through their kitchen drawers while they’re in the hospital. Don’t say it like that though, that’s a bit harsh.


Always focus on planning, rather than the monetary details. This shows you care that your parents are in good shape, that you respect their ability to make their own decisions, and that you’re not lying in wait like a vulture for their money.

Consider asking your parents how they addressed these kinds of concerns with their own parents, grandparents, and other family members. Remember that they’ve been around the block already and are still likely to have things to teach you. (Check out this great episode of Because Money that dives into this further).

Talking about money, especially when there isn’t enough, is hard on anyone, and even harder on parents when talking to their children. As parents, none of us ever want to look like we haven’t got it together. It’s always been our job to be the one in charge, with all the answers.

Yes, one of the transitions into adulthood is recognizing that our parents are far from perfect, and taking the time to carefully point out every, single, painful imperfection – and then forgiving them for being humans, just like us.

Help them keep their dignity as long as possible and take the opportunity to learn from them, by sharing information with love, and knowing that they are the ones who have to make the decision that work best for them. If the time comes that they can no longer make those decisions, you’ve been brave enough to have a conversation with them about incapacity, death, and more.

Julia Chung
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