When parents need support

Published Oct. 20, 2002|Updated Sept. 3, 2005

Selena Garza has tried broaching the subject of saving for retirement with her parents by casually dropping terms such as 401(k), pension fund and retirement account into conversations.

Garza, 27, is not trying to confirm a suspicion that her parents have no savings or retirement accounts. She only wants to know, while she's setting aside money for her young family's future, how much she'll need to contribute to her parents' retirement.

Yet asking that question is difficult.

"I don't want them to think I'm telling them what to do or how to live their lives," said Garza, an office manager at a Dallas manufacturing plant.

Adult children faced with the realization that their parents may not have planned adequately for their retirement must walk a fine line between trying to help their elders and not imposing on their private matters, experts say.

And reaching that balance early is important since today's adult children will spend more years taking care of their aging parents than their parents took care of them.

When parents have no savings, the financial strain can be overwhelming, experts say.

But there are steps that could make the transition easier _ and it all starts with an earnest discussion.

"I can't stress enough how important good communication is in this situation," said Terry Arnn, vice president at JP Morgan Chase in Dallas.

Ideally, children should raise the issue while their parents are healthy and able to work part time if needed. And siblings should unite in all decisions to avoid future problems.

A point of contention could be who will receive the power of attorney. Financial advisers say this is an important document in helping parents manage their money, especially if their physical and mental powers are waning.

For parents unwilling to sign a power of attorney, a joint checking account provides an easy way to sign checks and pay your parents' bills while allowing them to keep a sense of control.

Children have to remember that lending Mom and Dad a hand doesn't have to mean depleting your savings, says Albert "Rett" Dean, a financial planner and certified senior adviser at Quest Capital Management in Dallas.

Start the process by tallying a parent's resources: bank accounts, retirement funds and other investments. Then determine how long they are likely to last. Retirement planners and calculators are available on many Web sites to help in this matter.

Once you have access to your parents' financial records, analyze their cash flow. Unnecessary expenses such as payments on second cars or unused club memberships could diminish their assets over the years.

"Most of the options for parents will fall into four categories: Work longer, save more aggressively, reduce standard of living now or downsize after retirement," Dean said.

All options are difficult. But working with a financial planner to determine goals should help, he added.

"If they're going to work longer, then they should save more. If they do what they've always done, then we're just telling them, "Work until you die,' " he said.

Parents who own their home and are over age 65 might consider a reverse mortgage, which would give them a life stream of income out of the equity.

Learn about the subsidies and discounted programs for older adults, suggests Michael Dallas, a Fort Worth, Texas, certified financial planner and author of The Do-It-Right Retirement Guide.

Don't assume your parents are not eligible for government subsidies, such as Supplemental Security Income, Medicare or Section 8 housing. Food stamps may be an option, he says. And many pharmaceutical companies also provide free and reduced price prescription drugs for needy seniors.

"You need to look for ways that will reduce expenses each month, even if it's by a couple of dollars," he said.

Discourage any high-risk long-term investments, Dallas says.

"Someone who's living on the edge or just paying the bills needs to keep all money readily available," he said.

But most importantly, make sure parents are covered by adequate health insurance. Long-term insurance is often a good gift from the children.

Arnn of JP Morgan Chase said you could also help out parents with a regular contribution for uncovered expenses.

If you supply more than 50 percent of their support, you can claim them as dependents on your tax return and add their health care expenses to yours when computing your eligibility for a medical deduction.

Some companies offer a flexible spending account, so you may be able to pay up to $5,000 of their expenses using pretax money. A trust may be an option if you plan to give up to $11,000 a year and don't want to pay a gift tax.

Children should understand that planning requires anticipating negative situations such as disability and death. Families should explore solutions to different situations.

But first they may need to break down the barriers, Arnn says.

Avoid being invasive, he says. A two-way discussion, in which you are sharing your concerns and eliciting their advice, could later help turn the tables on their affairs, he says.

Understand that some parents might not open up until there is a compelling reason for you to intervene.

People often hesitate to discuss financial concerns with their parents for fear of appearing overly interested in their inheritance.

In other cases, children with their own financial problem don't want to open a Pandora's box.

Garza, the Dallas office manager, said she's working to break the barrier with her parents. But in the meantime, she's come to terms with the idea that she'll play a role in her parent's retirement.

"They come from a culture in which people believe that you pay for your home and then your family takes care of you, and I guess that's how it's going to be," she said.