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How to help aging parents with their finances

“Today” financial editor Jean Chatzky offers advice to adult children dealing with their parents financial future.

Worried about your parents financial security? ‘Today’ financial editor Jean Chatzky shares tips for how you can help them plan for the future.

Talking to your older parents about their finances is as hard for you as it was for them to talk to you about sex. Both conversations, however, are absolute must-haves. But this month you have an edge. The new Medicare drug plan has opened for enrollment and that gives you just the opening you need to have a conversation about finances and the future with your folks. Here's a look at the ground you want to be sure to cover:

  • Make sure they're on stable financial ground. Your parents, thankfully, will likely live a lot longer than their parents before them. It would be nice (for all involved) if whatever assets they've stockpiled for retirement (supplemented by Social Security) could last as long as they do.
    But in order to make that happen you need to understand — or to bring in a trusted financial adviser who understands — how your parents are living today. Do they have a substantial pension? Are they draining their savings? Or are they subsisting on Social Security? In other words, do they have enough?
  • Help make their money last. Although the financial industry (and financial writers like me) have a lot of emphasis on accumulating assets, we haven't talked enough about withdrawing money from retirement accounts in a way to make it last. If your folks aren't sure how much they can safely withdraw each year, four percent of total assets is usually a good starting point.
    But then take the time to access some of the retirement planning tools on Web sites like, which can help you get an even more accurate idea. If they don't like the idea of being subjected to any market fluctuations, you may want to consider an immediate annuity that can convert their retirement assets into an income guaranteed to last for life.
  • Consider where they want to live. You need to understand what sort of day-to-day life your parents envision today and in the future. Are they willing to move closer to you or one of your siblings to make taking care of them easier? Do you, or they, envision them moving in?
    For some people, their most important goal is to live the rest of their life in the family home. If your parents are among them, one way to increase their incomes and simultaneously guarantee that they will be able to stay at home is to consider a reverse mortgage. This is an arrangement by which, essentially, the bank buys the house back from your parents either with a lifetime of monthly payments or by a single lump sum. If your parents live longer than the bank expects, it can turn out to be a very good deal for them. If they live a short time, it's a better deal for the bank. The AARP Web site — — is chock-full of great information on how these loans work. But note: Make sure your parents want to stay in the home for themselves, not because they're intent on leaving the family home to you — particularly if you don't want it.
  • Do they have the proper paperwork? You need to know that your parents have three documents that will allow you to manage their health and finance needs if they become ill or incapacitated. Those are a living will (which tells a doctor or hospital whether or not they want life support); a health care proxy (which gives you or another individual the power to make health care decisions on their behalf); and a durable power of attorney for finances (which gives you or another individual the power to make financial decisions on their behalf). If they don't have these, I recommend getting a copy of the “Five Wishes Living Will,” which is essentially a living will and healthcare proxy in one. I like it because it's written in plain English rather than in legalese. You can find it on the Web at

Jean Chatzky is an editor-at-large at Money magazine and serves as AOL's official Money Coach. She is the personal finance editor for NBC's "Today" show and is also a columnist for Life magazine. She is the author of four books, including 2004's "Pay it Down! From Debt to Wealth on $10 a Day" (Portfolio). To find out more, visit her Web site, .