You get that call - all is not right with mom or dad. Suddenly, you have to step in and take over a life's worth of financial details.
For most people, this call comes too soon, before relatives have passed along key information about accounts and passwords, causing panic. But it's still a daunting task even for those who have planned ahead.
Just ask Diana Raab, 60, who lives in Santa Barbara, California, while her 84-year-old mother lives in New York. Raab, who is an author, made the cross-country trip in March after her mother got a bad cold and started losing her faculties.
She encountered total disarray: the cable bill hadn't been paid in months, there were stacks of mail and her mom's credit card wasn't working.
Where to start? There's a benefit to taking a methodical approach and not trying to do everything at once in a flurry, experts and experienced caregivers say.
Power of Attorney
First, find out who your parent has designated as their power of attorney.
If a properly signed and witnessed legal document is already on file, you're ready to go, says Howard Krooks, president of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys.
This is where advice to those who haven't yet prepared is key - set this up before anything bad happens. There is no age at which it's too soon, Krooks says. "The reality is that a disability can happen to anyone at any time," Krooks says.
If you don't have a power of attorney set up, though, you can get one executed in a day, says Holly Kylen, a retirement coach at ING. You can also get limited access to another person's checking account by going to a bank branch with them, says Jilenne Gunther, senior strategic policy adviser for AARP.
For situations where your parent or relative is too incapacitated to participate, you can contact an attorney and start the process to be named a guardian. In the meantime, keep records of bills you pay out of pocket.
If the disabled person is married, a spouse can typically access accounts. But, increasingly, married couples have at least a few separate accounts and you'll need paperwork to get into them, says Kylen.
What you don't want to do is call up pretending to be the incapacitated person. "It's just going to come back and bite you," says Kylen.
Once you get access to accounts, you need to go on a detective hunt. Raab started with her mom's primary bank account statements and made lists of the automatic payments, including a supplemental Medicare policy. But there were other bank accounts, too, along with multiple store credit cards. Raab says she keeps digging and digging - she went through her mail and her desk and now keeps track of most accounts online.
One challenge Kylen faced when taking over her mother's accounts was that everywhere she turned, companies kept asking for the original copy of the power of attorney document, and it was just a pure paperwork slog. Her advice? Ask the lawyer who executes the power of attorney agreement to get at least 10 copies.
Most families do this forensic work, culling through files paper by paper. But you can hire a caregiving organization to help. For example, LivHome, based in 15 states, costs $150 an hour for an initial assessment and $135 an hour for ongoing care, says Bunni Dybnis, director of professional services.
For additional resources, check out AARP's website (aarp.com/caregiving).
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has guidelines for managing someone else's money (here).
When New York comedian Dan Nainan's mom took ill a couple of years ago and his dad was suffering from dementia, Nainan and his sister had to jump in and take over not just the bills, but also the protection of their accounts. Their dad was so willing to give money to anyone who asked that he got on the radar of scammers, and now gets an endless stream of phishing attacks.
"There are people who are trying to rip them off day and night," says Nainan, 52. He intercepts his parents' mail, and also reroutes all the phone calls to a Google Voice account. Nainan has over 300 numbers blocked at this point, but more still try every day. If any legitimate callers leave messages, he lets the caregiver know and she dials for his dad.
Kylen protected her mother by lowering the credit limit on her credit card. She's also had clients who give an elderly parent a prepaid debit card and deposit only a limited amount each month.
Planning for the long haul
For Lynette Whiteman, a 57-year-old from Toms River, New Jersey, the call came more than two years ago - her father was not breathing well. Two weeks later, he was gone, and her mother was not in a position to take care of anything.
"My dad was good financially, but he had this account and that account. We had no idea what he had," Whiteman says. It took a full tax year to sort out the accounts, which she dealt with one-by-one, sending death certificates to gain access. Now she manages her mother's daily affairs, while a brother handles the long-term investing.
Her advice to people who get that call now is to be patient. "It doesn't all have to be done overnight," Whiteman says.
She vows to make caregiving easier for her own children.
"The one thing I'm going to do for my three boys is make these lists and tell them where they are," says Whiteman. "That's a gift you have to give your kids."