PODCAST: Having the Money Talk with Your Parents, with Cameron Huddleston

Managing your parents' finances can be a difficult situation. Doing so if you haven't laid down a plan for how to do it is worse.

Photograph of Cameron Huddleston
(Image credit: Sweet Wally Photography)

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David Muhlbaum: Having to manage your parents’ finances can be a difficult situation. Doing so if you haven’t laid down a plan for how to do it is worse. Cameron Huddleston, a Kiplinger alumna and author of a book on having those conversations, is here with help. Also, how to squeeze every last dollar out of the Recovery Rebate Credit.

David Muhlbaum: Welcome to Your Money’s Worth. I’m senior online editor David Muhlbaum joined by my cohost, senior editor Sandy Block. Sandy, how are you doing?

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Sandy Block: I’m doing great, David.

David Muhlbaum: Good. This week, I want to come back to taxes again because we’ve got a letter from Gary Johnson of Virginia, who describes himself as a “big fan.“ And as I like to say, flattery will get you anywhere. Anyway, here’s what Gary said. He said, “I was surprised when TurboTax added a tax credit for underpayment of stimulus amounts for the CARES Act and COVID relief bill. My 2020 income was less than 2019 for several reasons. So I qualified for larger stimulus payments. I don’t know if this would be worth mentioning on your podcast, but I wanted to share. There could be others out there who are unaware of how this could impact their tax bill, both positively and negatively.“

David Muhlbaum: Yes. So, Gary has run into a filing provision that is specific to 2020, and one that we did not actually cover last week. This is the recovery tax credit. This is a program directly tied to the stimulus checks that went out last year. So Sandy, can you go into a bit more detail for those other people he’s mentioned?

Sandy Block: Sure. So far, Congress has enacted two stimulus programs to jumpstart the economy. Both the $1,200 and $600 stimulus checks were simply advanced payments of the recovery tax credit. So if the combined total of your two stimulus checks is less than the Recovery Rebate Credit amount, you may be able to get the difference back when you file your 2020 tax return. You’ll get it in the form of a larger tax refund or a lower tax bill. There are a number of people who will come out ahead when they calculate the recovery tax credit. And it’s not just people whose income varied year to year in some significant way.

David Muhlbaum: Like Gary.

Sandy Block: Like Gary, who made less in 2020 than he did in 2019, but it could also vary depending on the dependent status of their children. So the recovery tax credit does require close attention, and I’m glad Gary wrote to us, as it can get complicated. So I’m going to refer to a story our colleague Rocky Mengle wrote for us with a wonderfully straightforward headline, What’s The Recovery Rebate Credit? Which runs through a bunch of scenarios that will help people figure out how this is going to affect them.

David Muhlbaum: Yes, What’s the Recovery Rebate Credit is memorable, but I will put it in the show notes, too. Now, Gary mentioned that people could be impacted negatively, but there’s no such thing as being overstimulated, right? There’s no way you’d have to give money back when you reconcile, is there?

Sandy Block: No way José. If your stimulus checks exceeded the amount of the credit, which could happen if your income went up in 2020, you don’t have to repay the difference. The government wants you to go forth and spend.

David Muhlbaum: So in theory, Mr. or Ms. Moneybags could get stimulus money that they weren’t really meant to. I guess this is, in part, the limitation of tying stimulus to income rather than assets.

Sandy Block: Right. And also remember the goal was to pump money into the economy -- and fast. And you don’t get that if you wait to see how much money people made in 2020. Imperfection is one of the prices of that.

David Muhlbaum: Okay. Well, let them go forth and stimulate, then. When we return for our main segment, we’ll discuss the difficult but necessary steps involved in helping aging parents manage their finances and how to even get the money talks started.

David Muhlbaum: Welcome back to Your Money’s Worth. Our guest today, Cameron Huddleston, is someone I’ve known since we rode the bus together. Not the school bus, just the good old Metro bus, that we used to take down to Kiplinger’s downtown Washington DC office. Cameron has had plenty of Kiplinger bylines in her time on a whole range of topics, but among her accomplishments since leaving us to move back to her native Kentucky was to write a book by the title, Mom And Dad, We Need To Talk: How To Have Essential Conversations With Your Parents About Their Finances.

That title pretty much explains what it’s about. And it’s a book that’s both highly practical and deeply personal because it draws on her experience taking care of her mother as she struggled with Alzheimer’s disease. And Cameron, I know you’ve already heard directly from many of us here Kiplinger, but let me please extend our condolences again. Mary Weaver Barksdale Huddleston, Winkie, as she was known, died last month, in your care, at your home, I believe.

Cameron Huddleston: Yes, you are right, David, and thank you so much. My mother, who did have Alzheimer’s disease, was living in a memory care facility and unfortunately the virus was spreading around her facility and she contracted it and her facility was not allowing COVID positive residents to quarantine there. She was actually in hospice care too, but the hospice facility was not allowing COVID positive patients either. And so I brought her to my home to care for her in her final days. It was incredibly difficult, but I was so glad that I was able to be there with her.

Sandy Block: Cameron, I’m really sorry to hear that. I also lost my father just a couple of weeks ago. He was in memory care. Fortunately, it wasn’t a COVID issue, but certainly COVID affected our ability to see him and spend time with him. We were able to see him towards the end when he went into hospice, but I share your experience, and again, I send my sympathies. I can’t imagine losing someone as young as your mother was.

Cameron Huddleston: Yes. Thank you. She was just a month away from turning 78. So, yes, relatively young and she was relatively young when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at the age of 65.

David Muhlbaum: Well, Cameron, you’re not just among friends, but you’re among fellow members of the so-called sandwich generation. Not only was your mother relatively young, so then, were you. And I imagine that in terms of getting your message out, this may be a bit of an advantage. People see you in videos, doing media, et cetera, and maybe think, “she went through all that? I’d better get on the stick!“ So let me turn this into a question: When is the right time to start talking to your parents about their finances?

Cameron Huddleston: I get this question all the time and what I often hear from people when they bring this up is, well, I don’t think I need to have this conversation yet because my parents are doing fine. They’re relatively young. They’re healthy. And as my example shows, it can happen at a very early age. Your parent can have a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, dementia, your parent could have a stroke. Your parent could have a heart attack. My father actually passed away at the age of 61. And he died without a will, even though he was an attorney and he was in a second marriage.

I say, have these conversations as soon as possible. Don’t wait for that health emergency. Don’t wait for that financial emergency because if you wait until the point when you have to have the conversation, emotions are going to be running high. And you’re not going to be thinking as clearly. And really, who wants to talk about finances when they’re dealing with a health crisis? So the best time to have this conversation is when your parents are relatively young and they’re relatively healthy so that you have time to get the information you need to make a plan to make sure all those legal documents are in place before something does happen.

Sandy Block: Cameron, what I like about some of your suggestions, and this is something that I did, is to approach it in the context of your parents’ estate plans, because people should have an estate plan at any age. You can have this conversation when they’re still relatively healthy and cognizant. And I think that’s what I did with my father, because he wanted us to know where everything was. And that conversation helped me understand what he had in his finances. And it made it a whole lot easier for me when I ended up actually taking over his finances, which I did. And I think that, sadly, the pandemic offers an opportunity to do that because it does show that you could be a healthy person one day and gone the next. And I think that’s a less threatening way to bring up this conversation than to say, mom and dad, I want to start paying your bills because I’m afraid you can’t do it anymore.

Cameron Huddleston: Exactly. And I think a lot of people in older generations think money is a taboo topic. And if you know that your parents don’t like talking about money, you’re right Sandy, the last thing you want to do is say, okay, let’s talk about your bank account and how much is in there. It can be easier to talk about those estate planning documents, because what you’re asking your parents is to tell you what their wishes are. And that is so important. That’s really the key to these conversations. That’s the goal, is to find out what do you parents want? Do they have something in writing that spells out what their wishes are? And it’s not just the will, and the will is certainly important, or a trust is important, because it’s important to know where your parents want their assets and property to go when they die.

It’s even more important though, to have that power of attorney document and the living will, it’s also referred to as an advanced directive. It’s so important to have those documents in place. They have to be drafted while your parents are still mentally competent and that power of attorney document lets you name someone to make financial decisions for you if you can’t. The living will is going to spell out what sort of end-of -life medical care you do or do not want. Typically it allows you to name a healthcare proxy to make medical decisions for you. And in the situation with my mother, if I had not been named her power of attorney and her healthcare proxy, I would not have been legally allowed to start making financial transactions for her. I would not have been able to talk to her doctor or to the hospital about her health care.

And I would have had to go to court to petition to become her conservator and guardian, to make those decisions for her. And that can be a very expensive process, a very lengthy process, and it’s just terrible because you’re putting a parent on trial to prove they’re no longer competent. These documents are so important. It’s so important to have that conversation with your parents to find out if they have them. And you can simply use yourself as an example. “Hey mom and dad, I recently met with an attorney to get these documents drafted. Do you have them? If you don’t, hey, I can recommend a good attorney for you to meet with.”

And I do encourage people to meet with an attorney. There are free low cost versions available online, but when you meet with an attorney, those documents are going to be drafted specific to your situation and to your state’s laws.

David Muhlbaum: Cameron, you and I — and I think this is also the case for Sandy — we were lucky in that our parents realized our intentions were good, that our concern was genuine and that we had their best interests at heart. And they went along. That’s not always the case, but you did research in your book on how to handle the tough cases, the uncooperative parent, or parents. What’s the guidance there?

Cameron Huddleston: Couple of things that you can do if your parents are unwilling to discuss any details of their finances, to talk about whether they have those estate planning documents. A good thing to do is to get a third party involved. Your parents might not want to hear from you that they need to take these steps to plan for the future. You are their child, and they might still think of you as that teenager who snuck out at night. And so getting a friend, a professional, a member of the clergy to suggest to your parent that he or she talk to you about their finances can be a good way to go about it.

Maybe Aunt Sally has done a great job of planning for her future, getting all those legal documents in place, sharing all that information with her kids. And so you say, “Hey, Aunt Sally, I’d love it if you could talk to mom and tell her about how helpful it’s been for you to have these conversations with your kids.“ Or maybe it’s a good friend of your mom, or maybe it’s the attorney she’s already been seeing to get those documents in place. Of course, that attorney can’t share details about what your parent has done. The financial planner can’t share details about your parents’ finances, but you can ask them to encourage your parent to talk to you and share this information with you.

Another thing you could do is ask your parent to write down the information. They might not want to tell you what sort of financial accounts they have, where their money is, whether you’re getting anything in the will, but they might be willing to make a list of all those accounts, their usernames, their passwords, their account numbers, make a list of all the financial professionals they work with, make a list of where everything is located, and then ask them to tell you where you can find that list and under what circumstances you can access it. That allows your parent to maintain control over this information. A lot of this just boils down to control and parents not wanting to give up control.

David Muhlbaum: Yeah. Speaking of getting things down on paper, one bit of advice that really resonated with me was your suggestion of sending a written invitation to your parents, inviting them to sit down and talk. Look, I get it: Nobody writes paper letters anymore, maybe to your kid at camp. But for our elders, that act of creating something tangible, by putting it in writing, can be hugely influential. It’s a sign of respect and it means you’re serious. And it gives them time to consider their response. I don’t know what the next generation is going to do when it’s time to get in touch with us, tag me in a tweet?

Cameron Huddleston: This was actually a wonderful recommendation given to me by a financial psychologist I interviewed for my book. And she had suggested, like you said, writing an invitation to your parents to have a conversation with you about their finances. Two benefits to this. One, like you said, David, it can be a sign of respect. “Mom and dad, I respect you and I want to invite you to have this conversation with me.” It also gives them time to process what you’re asking. If you just out of the blue say, “Hey, mom and dad, I’d love to have a conversation with you about your finances.” They might say, “Well, wait, hold on a second here. This is none of your business.”

If you put it into a letter and explain why you want to have the conversation, it gives them more time to think about it and see the value. And if you’re really appealing to this, “Please do it for me. This is important for me. It’s going to give me peace of mind to know that I know what your wishes are, mom and dad.” Hopefully that’s going to help them realize how valuable this conversation really is. Now, I wouldn’t, in that invitation say, “Okay circle yes or no whether you want to have this conversation.” You make it very clear that this conversation does need to happen, “but mom and dad, you can decide when and where it’s going to happen.”

Sandy Block: Well, the COVID-19 pandemic has obviously had a very direct impact on you and me too. It contributed to your mother’s death and it made it difficult for me to see my father. And then you had to go to quarantine because it was you and your sister who cared for her in her final days. But I know you’ve written that the pandemic itself actually presents an opportunity to have these conversations, but the problem is with social distancing, does that create another hurdle? Maybe you aren’t going to be able to actually sit down with your parents without putting them at risk.

Cameron Huddleston: As you mentioned, Sandy, I have written, and I’ve spoken about this too in other podcasts, that the pandemic does offer an opportunity, a very natural way to start these money conversations with your parents, because you can use a very current event to express your interest and say something like, “Mom and dad, I’m really worried about the pandemic. I’m worried about myself. I’m worried about you. I have been taking steps to be more prepared for emergencies. I’m wondering what you have done. Have you met with an attorney to make sure that you have a healthcare power of attorney, a financial power of attorney? Do you have any sort of plan in case one of you ends up in the hospital and someone has to make sure the bills are paid?”

It’s a very natural way to start the conversation. And it is so important to find out what sort of emergency planning your parents actually have done. And if they haven’t done any, then this is the time to start making a plan so that if something does happen, you can step in without any problems and help them. But like you said, Sandy, social distancing is a concern right now and so, how do you actually have the conversation? Maybe it’s on the phone and not in person, maybe it’s with a FaceTime call. You don’t have to necessarily be sitting right across for them in the same room. These conversations can happen naturally on the phone or a video call.

David Muhlbaum: Yeah. Oof. That could be hard. Video conferencing that sort of thing. What I also imagine is hard is going through this scenario with parents who are divorced or remarried. That definitely adds another set of dynamics.

Cameron Huddleston: It does, it can make it really complicated. I actually had a woman reach out to me recently who had read my book and she was in this situation. Her mother was remarried and the stepfather was making things really difficult for the children to get involved and ensure that the mother was in a good place financially. The stepfather apparently was spending all the money and the kids are trying to help mom out by giving her money to cover bills. Divorce makes things complicated and I do feel like you have to tread especially lightly in those situations, because what you don’t want to do is pit your parents against each other. You don’t want the stepparent to think that you’re trying to drive a wedge in between them.

So again, it depends on the relationship. If you have a great relationship with that stepparent, then it can be a good idea to sit down with both of them and say, “Hey, look, I’m concerned about both of you.” If the relationship isn’t so good, then maybe it just means going to your parent in particular and saying, “Mom or dad, I want to make sure that I know what your wishes are, that you’re in a good place financially, that I know what’s going on with your finances. And I think maybe it would be a good idea for you to talk with your spouse too.” And maybe that parent’s a bit of the go between, but like I said, don’t try to drive a wedge.

You don’t want to come in and say, “I’m concerned about how your new husband or wife is handling things because I don’t think they’re doing it right.” That’s not going to get you anywhere. So you want to remain neutral, but again, show that you are concerned and try to avoid conflict as much as possible.

Sandy Block: I remember a couple of years ago when my father was at the Cleveland Clinic and I met some people there, who also had parents. And I remember talking to one woman whose father had a very severe stroke and was incapacitated. And her stepmother was basically preventing her from seeing him or she wasn’t able to participate in his care. And I think if a parent makes clear his or her plans ahead of time, you can avoid that kind of heartbreak. And I hear these stories all the time about people who are from blended families and are absolutely prevented from being involved in their parents’ care because the spouse will prevail. No matter how bad you think that spouse is, unless that person has put in writing what they want. You’re out of luck.

Cameron Huddleston: Sandy, this really does highlight how important these conversations are if your parents are divorced. Of course, it’s easier if mom or dad are single now, then there’s only one, you only have to worry about mom and not the step husband or dad and not the... I shouldn’t say stephusband, the stepdad and dad and the stepwife. But if your parents are remarried, yes, it’s so important to highlight to your parents the need for getting things in writing. I think a lot of people think everyone will get along just fine. You guys can work it out, but that is not true, especially when it comes to money. And if there are step-siblings involved too, you really got to make sure that your parents put things in writing.

And I think it’s important to let your parents know too that they don’t have to name just one power of attorney. You don’t have to name just one healthcare proxy. You can name more than one of each. And I think it’s important too, to let your parents know when they’re meeting with that attorney that the language in those documents allows your powers of attorney to act independently. Because when you have more than one power of attorney and they have to act in unison, they have to make decisions together, that can make it difficult, because they might both have to be in the same room to sign the document. They both might have to be there to talk to the doctor.

Cameron Huddleston: And so if you’re going to name more than one power of attorney, make sure that they can act independently of each other. My sister and I both are my mother’s power of attorney, but we were allowed to act independently. So when I made decisions about my mom’s finances, I didn’t have to get my sister on the phone. I didn’t have to get her to sign off on things. I was allowed to do it myself.

David Muhlbaum: Oh, that’s a very good point. One that I had not thought of, being an only child. Cameron, catch us up to what you are doing with Carefull. That’s Carefull with two L’s. So what is Carefull and what are you doing for them?

Cameron Huddleston: So about a year ago, the CEO of a startup called Carefull reached out to me. Because of my book, he had seen my book. He and his co-founder were creating a company to help financial caregivers. And those are the people who are helping a parent’s loved one with daily money matters or providing their own finances for the care of a loved one. So this service, Carefull, is now an app that lets you monitor the finances of a loved one, a parent. It’ll link to their accounts and it’s going to alert you if there are unusual transactions, if spending is higher or lower than usual, if there’s a possible mispayment or a late payment or a duplicate payment, if there signs of fraud.

If you are managing finances for a parent, it can be incredibly time consuming, logging into all the different accounts, tracking things, trying to catch when things go wrong, when there are mistakes that are made. This app does it for you, monitors all those accounts, 24/7, sends you alerts when something is amiss so that you’re not constantly having to log on to all of those accounts. It doesn’t give you access to your parents’ accounts. So parents who might be a little bit wary about giving their kids too much access, all this is is a second set of eyes. And if you are the caregiver, it also allows you to get a really good idea of what’s going on with your parents’ finances.

It’s a first step if you’re trying to start getting involved. If you’re already involved, it just makes things easier. And so what I have been doing is actually creating the educational component of this app. So when you log onto the app, you can link your parents’ accounts and get those notifications, but you can also get tips and advice on how to manage your parents’ finances, how to get that power of attorney, ways to help your parents save money, because if you’re helping manage money for a parent, your big concern is, is there going to be enough money? So I have provided the educational content for the app and the app is now available for iPhones and Androids. I am super excited about it.

Sandy Block: So Cameron, since you and I are kind of in the same place now, I’m finding that because I was very much involved in my dad’s finances, it’s made it easier, although I’m still surprised at how much work I have to do, but it has made it easier settling his estate because I know where everything is. And I wonder if that’s been your experience as well.

Cameron Huddleston: Yes, it has made it a lot easier, like you said, because I knew what accounts were there. I knew there was a life insurance policy, I knew there was a will. But I will say Sandy, that it’s still difficult. It makes it so much easier if you know where everything is, it really does. I can’t imagine going through this process trying to play detective at this point because the process is hard enough. It’s really like rubbing salt in a wound because you’re grieving and you’re being reminded of that loss every time you get on the phone to talk to your parents bank, to talk to their healthcare provider, to close the account, to close their credit card account, to call the courthouse.

It’s hard enough going through that process. I just can’t imagine how hard it is for people who have no idea what sort of assets their parents had, what accounts they had, whether they had life insurance, whether they had a will. And so you might never have to get involved with your parents’ finances while they’re living, but everyone dies. And there’s a really good chance that you will have to settle your parents financial affairs after they die. And having this conversation, knowing what sort of accounts they have, what sort of assets they have, it’s going to make that process when your parent dies a whole lot easier.

David Muhlbaum: So what kind of resistance do you think you might face from parents who could see this as you wanting, frankly, to snoop on their accounts? How do you overcome that?

Cameron Huddleston: There are certainly going to be some parents who say, “Yeah, this is a great idea. I love the idea that you’re going to help me keep an eye out on my finances to protect me.“ But then of course, there are going to be parents who are going to say just that this is none of your business, why are you trying to see what’s going on in my accounts? And I really think the key here is to point out that you want to help protect your parents. “Mom and dad, I am not trying to take over things for you. I’m trying to be a second set of eyes.“ You can even use yourself as an example, “Look, I’ve made late payments sometimes. I’ve made mistakes in my own accounts. Sometimes I don’t do a good job of tracking my spending. It’s just nice to have technology that’s making this easier. I think you might find it’s nice that I am there looking over your shoulder.”

“I am there just to keep an eye on things too, in case something happens. And if something does happen, mom or dad, and perhaps there’s an illness or an accident and you’re in the hospital, I’m already going to be aware of what’s going on with your finances. And so I won’t have to scramble to step in and help you. It’s just going to make things down the road. I’m not trying to take over things. I just want to be able to help you and protect you.”

David Muhlbaum: It’s interesting to see how technology is being brought to bear on this situation. Technically, you’re not really a member of the sandwich generation if you’re not actively caring for your parents anymore. There’s a new, younger cohort coming in. That’s just how things work. And I imagine that both for the elders and the new set of carers, these technological solutions will feel more comfortable and familiar.

Cameron Huddleston: I agree, and I do think that in general, caregiving is so difficult that anything that you can do to make it easier is a big plus. And like I said, managing someone’s finances can take a lot of time. I feel technology like Carefull can be a real time-saver and make it easier for you to do your job as a caregiver.

Sandy Block: Yeah, I agree, Cameron. Because I know when I took over my dad’s finances, having things like automatic bill pay and I guess Carefull would allow me not to do this, but I used to check his bank account on my phone every day, just to make sure that things were in order and as difficult as that was, if I hadn’t had technology to help me, it would have been 10 times more difficult because so many of his bills, I just used debit to get them paid. I didn’t have to sit around writing checks all night long.

Cameron Huddleston: Right. And you can still, obviously if you’re managing a parent’s finances, you set up those automatic bill payments, it’s just that when you have an app like Carefull monitoring things, you get to see all those accounts in one place so you don’t have to log in separately to the checking account, the savings account, the credit card accounts, everything is there. And if there’s anything awry, you’re going to get a notification and you’re going to know right away.

Maybe mom was out shopping and left the debit card behind and now someone has it and someone’s making charges with it and you’re suddenly getting a notification that mom’s debit card was used to make an unusual purchase. And you’re like, “Oh my gosh, I need to act on this right away to limit the damage.”

David Muhlbaum: Cameron, it’s been great to hear your voice. Thank you so much for coming back and talking with us and good luck with Carefull.

Cameron Huddleston: Thank you. And thank you so much for having me.

David Muhlbaum: That will just about do it for this episode of Your Money’s Worth. If you like what you heard, please sign up for more at Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your content. When you do, please give us a rating and review. And if you’ve already subscribed, thanks. Please go back and add a rating or review if you haven’t already. To see the links we’ve mentioned in our show, along with other great Kiplinger content on the topics we’ve discussed, go to kiplinger.com/podcast. The episodes, transcripts, and links are all in there by date.

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Sandra Block
Senior Editor, Kiplinger's Personal Finance

Block joined Kiplinger in June 2012 from USA Today, where she was a reporter and personal finance columnist for more than 15 years. Prior to that, she worked for the Akron Beacon-Journal and Dow Jones Newswires. In 1993, she was a Knight-Bagehot fellow in economics and business journalism at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She has a BA in communications from Bethany College in Bethany, W.Va.