Personal Finance

How to have 'the talk' about aging and money

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Families, it's time for "the talk."

No, not the one about the birds and the bees. For aging parents and their adult children, talking about big financial issues like retirement goals, estate plans and health-care wishes can go a long way toward reducing misconceptions and easing family tensions.

But those talks don't happen as often or as successfully as they should, according to a recent study by Fidelity Investments, which found that nearly two-thirds of families disagree about the optimal time for such discussions, with adult children generally preferring earlier talks than parents.

"There are a lot of different dependencies in families over time," said Lauren Brouhard, senior vice president of retirement at Fidelity. But in this instance, she said, the children seem to have the right idea. "To have those conversations sooner increases peace of mind."

Some 75 percent of adult children and their parents in the survey agreed that it is important to have frank conversations about retirement expenses, eldercare and estate planning. But only 44 percent have had detailed discussions about covering living expenses in retirement. Just 37 percent had discussed health care and eldercare in depth, and 59 percent had had detailed conversations about wills and estates.

"The older generation never talked about money, so sometimes they're not comfortable talking about money with their kids," said Jon Yankee, a financial advisor and partner in FJY Financial.

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Barry Glassman, president of Glassman Wealth Services, said that sometimes his older clients are reluctant to discuss financial plans with their kids because they are still sorting out their own priorities.

"I'm not sure many of them have reconciled it themselves. If they have, it's in a document, but it's not necessarily in a conversation," he said.

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Part of the issue, Glassman said, is that being 70 years old today is not the same as being 70 a generation ago. People are living longer, and generally feeling better along the way.

"Many of them are still traveling and exploring," he said. "They don't feel old, and maybe they don't feel old enough to have that conversation."

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Nonetheless, experts say these discussions can help all members of a family breathe easier.

"Adult children at some point are probably going to be asked to accept some real responsibility," said Fidelity's Brouhard. As an example, "we are seeing more and more that it's the eldest daughter that is taking on some responsibility, especially related to health care or medical issues. There are implications of this in terms of women needing to off-ramp and on-ramp into the workforce, and it could have long-term financial consequences for them. It all relates to having a more informed plan."

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How can families have these sensitive discussions more easily?

Glassman pointed out that today's boomers who are dealing with their own parent's financial situation now may be more motivated to get their own long-term plans settled.

"They've been thrown into decisions and caring for their parents, so I believe they understand what it is that their kids may go through," he said.

Yankee looks for opportunities when his older clients are reviewing their own documents. "If their documents say my first son does this and the other that, part of our questioning is, 'Are they aware of this? Do they know what to do if something were to happen to you?'" Yankee said. "We coach them to have that discussion."

Some aging parents opt to share information on legal arrangements and accounts, leaving dollar amounts out of the picture, Yankee said. They may put together paperwork that lists their accountant, their lawyer, their financial advisor, their account numbers, and the like, so the children know what to do but the parents don't have to reveal everything.

"Older clients are proactively asking how to have that conversation but not spill all the beans," he said.

When Yankee works with clients in their 30s and 40s on wills and estates, he said, that sometimes gives them an opening. "That's an easy entree with them to talk to their parents—as in, these are questions that have come up and I thought maybe we should talk about these things too."

The Fidelity study found that adult children regularly underestimate their parents' estates, but Glassman said that isn't the point.

"There is always worry about is there enough money in case a parent gets sick," he said. "They know their parents want a good quality of life."

—By CNBC's Kelley Holland