smart spending

8 steps for managing parents' finances

Step 3:   Locate power of attorney or living trust documents.

If your parents named you as their agent in their power of attorney, or (for larger estates) as successor trustee in their revocable living trust, you'll need to show these documents to every financial institution you deal with.

Before a bank can even tell you your dad's checking account balance, it needs this form to prove you're entitled to the information, says Shenkman. "If your name is not already on your parents' checking account, but you're listed on their power of attorney, you can still pay their bills," says Shenkman. "Simply sign checks as Jane Smith (mom's name) by John Smith (your name) as POA (power of attorney)."

If you'll be handling your mom's or dad's accounts indefinitely, add your name to their bill-paying checking account. Your bank branch manager can arrange this after reviewing the power of attorney form.

Important: "Be very cautious about handing over or mailing power of attorney or trust documents to anyone," says Shenkman. "Although most banks and brokers want to see the originals -- and may even ask you to mail them if they're out of state -- they'll usually settle for a 'certified true original,' which is a copy prepared by your financial professional," he says.

If you have no choice but to send the original, Haubrich suggests sending the documents by overnight mail and insisting that the financial institution overnight them back to you. An out-of-state bank or broker may also agree to have a bank officer in your hometown authenticate the documents.

Advance planning tip: There are three important documents you can help your parents prepare before they become ill.

Most important documents:

  • A power of attorney form, which allows you to take care of their finances.
  • A health care proxy, which allows you to make life-and-death medical decisions.
  • A will, which determines how their assets will be divided when they're gone.

Step 4:   Open their safe-deposit boxes -- with a witness.

Your parents shouldn't keep their power of attorney form or living trust originals in their safe-deposit box. They're better off at home in a fireproof box. Why? If you don't have these important forms in hand, and you're not listed on your parents' safe-deposit box account, you're in trouble. You need those forms to gain access to their box.

If this happens, the easiest option may be to get a new power of attorney form. This is possible as long as your parent is still competent enough to authorize it. Otherwise, you'll need a court order to open the safe-deposit box -- a major hassle.

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