“Grandpop passed away suddenly at age 64. My grandmother decided to sell their rambling farmhouse and move to a community for seniors. Part of that transition meant downsizing and getting rid of most of their furniture to accommodate her new, smaller living quarters. Family members chose the items we wanted but much still remained, so we decided to have a moving sale. The day of the sale, my grandmother turned on the huge stereo cabinet that sat in her living room. I knew it would be hard for her to part with it; my grandfather loved music and that stereo was always playing in the background whenever I came to visit. My grandmother recalled seeing Grandpop hide money in the stereo more than once, so we decided to check it more carefully before the sale got underway. It was a good thing we did, because we were shocked to find envelopes stuffed with large sums of money hidden in every nook and cranny. In all, we found more than $15,000! I’ve often thought about how different the outcome might have been if my grandmother hadn’t thought about the possibility of Grandpop’s secret stash and the stereo had been sold. Now that my own parents are getting older, I realize how important it is to know where they keep their valuables and important documents.”
As long as your parents seem healthy and are managing their day-to-day lives without incident, you probably don’t give much thought to their important financial, legal, and healthcare documents and where to find them. But an unexpected health event could demand an immediate need to locate key information in a hurry.
That’s why now—before something happens—is the best time to talk to your aging parents about this information. Initially, they might feel that it’s an invasion of their privacy and they may be hesitant to discuss personal matters with you. If you’re met with resistance, keep trying and explain why it’s important for you to have the information in the event of an emergency situation. Ask for the details and locations of the following information:
1. Medical records: When a health event occurs, doctors will ask about existing conditions, previous surgeries, and current medications. If both of your parents are living, the other spouse likely knows these answers, but it's good for someone else to have the information in case both parents become ill or injured.
2. Health insurance and life insurance information: Find out where your parents keep their health insurance information and locate their cards. Look for life insurance policies, as well, and make sure the premiums are current.
3. Advance directives: Your parents may have a living will and/or a healthcare power of attorney (POA), which is different from a general power of attorney. The healthcare POA designates the person who is legally permitted to make medical decisions on their behalf. It carries the same authority as if he or she was the patient himself. The living will spells out what actions your parents would want in the way of medical intervention at the end of life.
4. Deeds and titles: Take the time to find out the location of deeds to houses and land, and titles to cars and any recreational vehicles. A health crisis may precipitate a sudden move to a care facility and the need to liquidate assets.
5. Banking information: If a loved one is suddenly incapacitated, their bills still need to be paid. Learn where your parents bank, and get their account numbers, online access codes, and debit card PINs. Find out how their bills are paid, whether it’s through checks, auto-draft, or paid online. Ask your parents to consider having your name, or a sibling’s, added to their convenience account that allows the child to sign checks in the event of an emergency. Adding a child to an exising account changes ownership and has gifting implications.
6. Safe deposit box: Ask your parents if they have a safe deposit box. If they do, find out where it’s located, where they key is, what the procedure is for accessing the box. Most likely, they will need to add your name to the file in order for you to gain access.
7. Hidden valuables: While most people don't keep money in the mattress anymore (or stereo cabinet), some still pick bizarre places to stash cash and jewelry. If your folks are hiding cash at home, encourage them to pick just one place. Divvying up cash among multiple spots increases the chance of them forgetting one of the hiding places or inadvertently throwing out the money. They should tell at least one other person the location of their hiding place to reduce the risk of an accidental disposal, and it also ensures those assets won't be lost if they suddenly pass away. If your parents don't want to divulge the location of their valuables to you, suggest they make a list and keep it with their wills.
8. Investment information: It's important to know the location of your parents' investments and the name and contact information for their adviser. Learn about any fees, required distributions, and withdrawal penalties that may apply.
9. Wills, birth certificates, and marriage licenses: Ask your parents about their wills and where they're located. If they don't have wills or haven't updated them in years, initiate a consultation with their attorney. Dying intestate lengthens the probate process and often sparks family squabbles. Also locate birth certificates, marriage licenses, and veterans’ information, if applicable.
10. End-of-life decisions: Death is a subject no one likes to discuss, but you may be surprised to discover that your parents have already made plans. It's a hard conversation to have but it’s important to know your parents’ end-of-life wishes.
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