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The Uncomfortable Questions Baby Boomers Need to Ask Their Aging Parents

March 24, 2015
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By Dana Twight

Learn more about Dana on NerdWallet’s Ask an Advisor

As baby boomers, our parents are demanding more involvement from us (or should be) and it’s often tough to know where to start. None of us likes to be confronted with our mortality, but there are a few questions that will help you assist your parents as they age.

If one or both of your parents ends up in the hospital, you need to be prepared.

What should you do?

a) Grab their health-care directives from your safe and dash off to the hospital.
b) Immediately go online to search for the best hospital they should be in.
c) Flip through your contacts list on your phone, trying to recall the names of any doctors you know, any doctors at all …

What is the right answer? Maybe all of the above, and certainly the first one — but do you have your parents’ health-care directives? What questions (and answers) must you get from your parents so you’ll be fully prepared for that phone call?

Most of us have a hard time imagining how this conversation will go. Or worse, you know how it might go, and it stays stuck in your head like a scratchy vinyl record, grinding away at your sanity.

I asked an estate attorney to name the one question his clients should ask their parents. He said that asking for an estate plan is probably most important.

But perhaps the first question should be: Do you have an estate plan at all?

For many of us, the phrase “estate plan” may as well be in Greek. If you or your parents don’t yet have an estate plan, you’re probably not alone. You might list procrastination as your No. 1 reason for not moving forward. “Someday” is not a strategy.

An estate plan includes a will, health-care directive and a durable power of attorney. A will directs how assets will be distributed upon death. A health-care directive, also a legally binding document, includes wishes for end-of-life care and establishes who is in charge of care if the person cannot make decisions for himself.

A durable power of attorney appoints another person to make non-health decisions on the behalf of the person who’s sick, regarding property, finances or even where they want to live. Without one, if they are incapacitated, a court has to appoint one. That is time-consuming, possibly expensive and you might not like whom they choose. Estate documents can also include a letter of intent, beneficiary and guardianship designations.

An important legal issue that typically comes up involves parent-to-child property transfers. A key point to consider is whether the property transfer is a gift.

In general, you should also know if you are the personal representative for either of your parents and whether your siblings are in (or out) of their will.

Finally, consider this excellent question from the conversation game My Gift of Grace: “What are their habits that make life worth living?”

These conversations about life and death, as awkward and uncomfortable as they may be, do generate their own riches.

The answers are worth more to families than the sheer numbers and dollars alone, yielding peace of mind in a moment of crisis.

But “not yet” and “someday” are not the answers you will need.