Your loved ones aren't getting any younger, and the economy isn't getting any better. The two trends might have something in common, and that's why it is so important to help your family members organize their important financial documents, to learn more about their financial resources, and to help protect them against scams. What should you do to ensure the safety of your loved ones' financial security?
First, you've got to know what they've got. But where to start? I can't tell you how many adult children approach me and ask, "How can I possibly ask Mom and Dad about their finances without stirring up a hornet's nest?" And it is true; this family conversation is often the most difficult one. It is also, however, often the most important one.
One way to approach the topic of finances is to focus first on getting organized. It is critical to know where your folks keep important documents. This doesn't mean you are taking over. It merely means you are asking them to share information you might need some day.
One of the easiest ways to learn where important things are is to ask. Consider asking some of the following questions:
"Mom, where is your marriage certificate or birth certificate?"
"Dad, where are your military records, your pension papers, or your Social Security card?"
"Do you have a will or trust that the rest of the family should know about if anything were to happen to you?
A search for documents can lead to deeper conversations about where other important insurance or financial information is kept. Having all this information in one place can mean peace of mind. The process of gathering it can also help you get a true sense of your loved ones' financial assets.
Once you and your family have completed an inventory of where things are — and listed, for example, "the will is in the top drawer of the file cabinet, my bank accounts are in these three banks, and the deed to the house is in the upstairs desk" — you will find that your loved ones are organized, and you will have gained insight into their finances.
It might be that you end up going down memory lane with your family members as they search the attic, basement, cabinets, drawers, and closets for important documents, such as your parents' marriage certificate. Use these opportunities to share memories and stories of their past.
Remember, if they are still of sound mind, they are still in charge of their finances. You are there to help, NOT to take over. Tell them this often, so they don't feel threatened.
Once you have a clearer picture of your parents' financial circumstances, you can better help them protect themselves against scams. That's right, scams — of all sorts:
Tax refund-anticipation loans, where scammers charge high fees and then don't deliver the tax refund in a timely manner.
Grandparent scams, in which the "grandchild" calls asking for money because of an "emergency"
Reverse mortgages, where those whose financial situation doesn't call for such a borrowing tool, are convinced to commit to one on with unfavorable terms.
Customer survey scams, in which a person claiming to represent a reputable company says the firm will pay you for participating in the survey, and then asks you for your credit card and pin number so that the company can "credit your account"
Pet scams, where swindlers target would-be pet owners out of money targeted for adoption of animals from foreign countries
Rent-to-own contracts, stating that one missed payment requires your loved ones to forfeit all their previous payments and to surrender all the rented goods
"Free lunch" scams, which offer people free lunches to listen to bogus investment pitches dished out by a high-pressure salesperson.
These are all in addition to the unsavory litany of familiar scams, such as predatory lending, phishing, "credit repair" services, numerous fundraising letters from Africa, and home-repair fraud.
When the economy is doing poorly, scammers become more imaginative in developing techniques to dupe people out of their money. Older adults are too often the target for con artists, and many of the scams listed above can result in an immediate, dramatic, and permanent loss of money.
Both caregivers and their loved ones need to share responsibility in keeping abreast of the latest scams and reporting them when they are targeted.
Scamming generates untold headaches for consumers and their caregivers alike. It can be difficult to guard against, particularly if you respect the dignity and independence of those whom you love. It is a two-way street, and your caregiving role in preventing scams is as important now as it ever has been.
So there you have it, a multipronged approach: Know the location of your loved ones' important documents, evaluate their financial situation, and then work to protect them against scams. By following these steps, you are doing your part to protect the interests of your family members, so that they can live lives that are not threatened by those who would take rather than give.
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