One of the big challenges of helping aging parents with their finances can be trying to piece together their financial picture. After all, you can’t really help them stay on top of money matters if you don’t know what their sources of income are, what accounts they have or what bills they must pay.
Of course, being able to gather this information from your parents is ideal. However, if they have Alzheimer’s disease or some other cognitive impairment, they may no longer know all of the details of their finances. Or they simply might not want to share the information you need to help them. Then you might need to play detective.
To help you with your search, use these sources of information. They should be able to give you a clear picture of your parents’ finances.
Start with the mail
If you live near your parents, volunteer to go through their mail to sort the junk from bills and other important correspondence. You could tell them you want to take this tedious task off their plates (a win for them). And you’ll get to see statements for the accounts they have and bills they owe (a win for you).
You’ll need to do this for a few months—or ask your parents to hang onto everything that comes in so you can review it at the end of each month. Make a list of bills that must be paid, the financial accounts they have and the debts that are owed from the statements they receive. Pay particular attention to their bank statements, which will show how much money they have coming in each month from Social Security (payments are sent electronically), a pension or other sources of income. You’ll be able to see how much they’re spending. And you’ll be able to find out which bills they pay by check or by automatic withdrawals.
If your parents don’t already have online accounts and you are their power of attorney, you could create online accounts and set up automatic payments to make it easier to monitor their finances going forward.
[ Read: 10 Tips and Tricks for Managing Your Parents' Finances ]
Check email inboxes
If your parents have opted for electronic rather than paper statements, their email inboxes will be a great source of information for you. However, you’ll likely need your parents’ permission and help to log onto their email accounts. This might not be an option for you, but if it is, you can scour their inboxes for electronic account statements. Be sure to check their spam and trash folders, too.
Go through their wallets
Your parents’ wallets could be a treasure trove of information. Encourage them to let you take a peak by offering to help them pare down what’s in their wallets to just the essentials. You could tell them this will help limit the damage if their wallets are stolen or lost.
As you search for financial documents in your parents’ home, keep an eye out for tax returns. These will provide valuable information about their sources of income as well as their Social Security numbers.
It will help you identify what debit and credit cards they have. You might find Social Security cards, which they shouldn’t be carrying in their wallets. Look for Medicare cards or cards from an insurance company if they are enrolled in Medicare Advantage. They might also have auto insurance cards in their wallet, rewards program cards or membership cards, which might help you identify whether they’re paying monthly or annual membership fees.
Check the checkbook
Your parents might still be relying heavily on checks to make payments. If so, their check register will offer clues about their spending and the bills they pay—if they bother to record transactions, that is. Look for the checkbook in a purse, desk or dresser drawers, kitchen drawers or even coat pockets.
Dig through desks, drawers and files
You might need to search your parents’ home for financial documents and account statements that don’t arrive regularly by mail or can’t be accessed online. Check desks, drawers, closets and boxes in the garage, basement, attic or under the bed. Documents also might be stored in a lockbox at a bank or in a home safe. Things to look for include the following:
- Life insurance policies
- Long-term care insurance policies
- Annuity contracts
- Homeowners or renters insurance policies
- Stock or bond certificates
- Retirement, brokerage or pension account documents
- Birth certificates or citizenship papers
- Marriage certificate (or divorce decree)
- Social security cards
- Military service records and Veteran ID cards
- Medicare or Medicaid cards
- Medicare Advantage or Medicare supplemental insurance cards
- Property deeds
- Vehicle titles
- Wills and other estate planning documents
Review tax returns
As you search for financial documents in your parents’ home, keep an eye out for tax returns. These will provide valuable information about their sources of income as well as their Social Security numbers (if you haven’t been able to locate them). If your parents itemize deductions, you can find out additional information such as mortgage interest they paid, charitable contributions they made and medical expenses they had.
If your parents didn’t hang onto their tax returns, they can request transcripts of past returns from the IRS. The IRS has instructions on how to get tax return transcripts online or by mail. Having your parents’ past returns or transcripts also will help if they no longer are mentally competent and you have to file tax returns for them. This guide will walk you through the process of filing a tax return for a parent.
Get their credit reports
Visit Annualcreditreport.com with your parents to get a free copy of their credit reports from each of the three credit bureaus—Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. You or your parents will need to provide their Social Security numbers and birth dates and confirm their identity by answering a few questions about their credit history.
The reports will include their personal information, including current and former addresses. It will show current and past lines of credit, dates that credit accounts were opened and closed, credit limits and balances on accounts, payment history and whether accounts are past due. They’ll show whether your parents have had any bankruptcies, foreclosures or liens. And the reports show companies that have requested your parents’ credit reports.
This will let you know what sort of debt your parents have and whether they’re missing payments. Also, help them look for accounts they don’t recognize. If there’s a loan in their names that they didn’t take out or credit card accounts they didn’t open, it could be a sign that their identities have been stolen and used to open accounts in their names. If you think they are victims of identity theft, contact the three credit bureaus.
If you check all of these places and sources (or even some of them), you should be able to piece together a pretty accurate picture of your parents’ finances. It will take time to gather the information you need. Once you have it, though, you’ll be better able to help your parents with their finances as they age.
[ Keep reading: How to Speak So Your Parents Will Listen ]