Thursday, May 7, 2009

Twenty questions to ask the elderly

Robyn Davis Sekula is a public relations and marketing consultant who assists us with many things here at the Family Investment Center. She offered to write about her own experience gathering information from her elderly parents and her thoughts are posted below. Tell us about your own experiences with managing the finances of elderly parents in the comments section.

By Robyn Davis Sekula

During December 2005, I was home in Virginia visiting my parents when my Uncle Bob died unexpectedly. Bob was only a year older than my father, and it sent a bit of a chill through the house. Dad looked at me that afternoon and gave me a wonderful gift. He said, “Let’s go downstairs.” We went into an area that he had used as an office, and he began to tell me everything.

Having spent most of my life as a reporter, I took notes. I’m an only child, and my parents are in their 70s and live nine hours away. My mother knew very little about the finances of the home at that time, and I’m very much the practical soul of the family, so I knew I would have to be the one to have the information. He started with the basics: where the original of his will was located, who has power of attorney (mom) and life insurance. Then, I worked my way into a series of questions on everything I could think of since he seemed receptive to answering questions.

I’ve accumulated this list here for you to use with your own elderly relatives. If you live far away, all of these questions are especially crucial and things you need to know. They may sound small, but every piece of information that you have handy will save you a step or two in the future.

Don’t assume that you know everything, either. Your parents may have inherited something that they never mentioned to you or have purchased something that they’ve never discussed. Ask it all. You will no doubt find a surprise or two.

Here’s the list of questions I’d use in such a conversation:

1. Where is your will? Not a copy, but the original. My grandfather's estate could not be settled until his original will could be located. Guess who had it? His ex-wife, who could have easily destroyed it, since it was not in her favor and she was not friendly with the rest of the family. That could have been a disaster.
2. Who prepared your will? Be sure to get contact information, too.

3. Who is your life insurance policy with? What is the payout? Is it term or whole life? Where is the policy paperwork?

4. Do you have a financial advisor who you work with?

5. Where do you have money? Need names of banks, credit unions and investments.

6. Where are your safe deposit boxes? Need names of banks, address of branch and location of keys.

7. Do you have a safe? Where is it? What is the combination?

8. Are there any other secure places where you store important paperwork and documents?

9. Where do you receive income from? Cover both retirement and investments.

10. What do you own? Go over house, car, land, and location of titles and paperwork of each.

11. What debt do you have and who owns that debt? Cover mortgage (first, second, reverse, lines of credit), car loans, credit cards, consumer goods, old student loans.

12. What do you believe are your most valuable assets and what do you believe these items are worth? Use this question for significant antiques, works of art, and other items not covered anywhere else on this list.

13. What bills do you pay each month? Get the names of each utility paid and how much the bills typically are so you’ll know if there is a sudden jump.

14. Are there any issues with your home or any property that you own that need to be addressed? Does the roof or basement leak? Are there plumbing problems or electrical issues?

15. Who holds the policy for your homeowners and car insurance?

16. Do you own a burial plot or have thoughts on where you would like to be buried?

17. Do you feel you have adequate income for your situation?

18. Does anything financial keep you up at night? Are you worried about anything that I can help you with?

19. Who has power of attorney in the event you are incapacitated? What about the spouse?

20. What else do I need to know? What did I forget to ask you?

Believe me, these aren’t easy questions to ask. But turn your mind off of the emotional part of this conversation, if you can, and just put yourself in the mindset of someone who needs information. Take good notes. Store them where you know you can find them. Make a copy and place it in your safe deposit box. Even leave a copy at your relatives' home should you be called there in an emergency. And whatever you do, don’t put this off. Time sometimes steals someone far ahead of when you anticipate, and the more information you have on hand, the better off you’ll be.


  1. Thanks, Robyn. Great thoughts for anyone with older parents or relatives. Truth is, they NEED us to know these things about their situation.

  2. This is good to know for anyone of any age -- thank you!

  3. You are welcome. It's something I've long thought about and it felt great to put it on "paper." I hope others can learn from my experience. I posted it on my Facebook profile and had a lot of good feedback.

  4. These are excellent questions! I tend to think Mom and Dad have told me everything, but not according to this list! This is something I will sit down with them and go through. I am closest in distance and will undoubtedly deal with it first. A hard thing to think about, but so necessary.

  5. Very difficult. I discovered that my mother didn't know most of the things on that list. My mother didn't even know who the phone company was. I think she does now because she's taken over most of the bill-paying, but she's let dad do it for so long.

  6. Good article. My husband is an insurance agent, and I would suggest that people also get phone numbers for each insurance company, bank, investment company. Lots of insurance companies have very similar names, and tracking down the right one can be frustrating. And some people have several life insurance policies. Insurance companies have lots of policies where family members have never collected a claim because the families never know the policy exists. We have heard of premiums drafting from a person's account 3 years after their death because the insurance co. didn't know they were deceased & the family didn't know about the policy. So don't stop asking after they tell you about the first policy. Also, some bank accounts & credit cards have a small life insurance policy attached to them. Don't overlook these.


Family Investment Center Videos