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Business News/ Opinion / The toughest conversation ever

The toughest conversation ever

It's not the easiest thing to discuss your ageing parents' financial affairs

Shyamal Banerjee/MintPremium
Shyamal Banerjee/Mint

I’m talking to an old friend. The conversation veers around to ageing parents and he speaks of the difficulty in talking to his 80-year-old father about end-of-life choices, putting his assets in order and writing a will. Over the past decade-and-a-half he says he’s been through various stages—indifference (this will sort itself out), denial (my old man won’t cop it so soon—we come from healthy stock), guilt (what am I doing thinking about the death of my own folk?), worry (gosh, the run-around XYZ went through to get basic bank accounts unfrozen and don’t even talk about the real estate mess) and then courage (I’m going to nail this talk next time we meet) and finally to despair (dad doesn’t want to discuss it!).

It’s not the easiest thing to discuss your ageing parents’ financial affairs and asking them if they have thought about not just making a will but about having a larger plan in mind about the transition into the other world and the care of the spouse and assets left behind. A chunk of the 40-plus urban mass affluent Indians is watching their parents age—slowly but incrementally, surely. For this slice of the Indian population who I like to call the urban professional mass affluent, dealing with this transition is breaking new territory where there are no old rules of tradition and precedence to fall back on. Around 30-40 years ago the norm was (and continues to be in smaller towns and rural India) that ageing parents were looked after by their eldest son, and because the families mostly lived together, the transition from one generation to the other was gradual.

Slowly the younger family would take over the various tasks of running the house and finances—so things like location of documents, names on bank accounts and location of locker keys wasn’t such an issue. Usually the sisters’ dowries took care of their inheritance issues (most signed over their rights to the brothers) and the brothers would sort out the family assets the best they could.

But for the post-independence born urban professional mass affluent Indian, the story is very different. The parents mostly continue to lead independent lives, with assistance now and then, and very little intervention in the day-to-day running of the house or finances. However, smoothening the end-of-life issues needs more attention rather than less than ever before. In the generations gone by, the focus was on care and who would provide it, but for the current set of urban oldies, it is more about lifestyle, independence and own-space concerns. Issues to be sorted out are end-of-life choices, the continuation of the accustomed life for the spouse left behind, paperwork location, real assets bequeathing and closure of debts, if any. But my dipstick survey among people like us tells me that this conversation jostles with the birds and the bees talk with the kids in terms of the squeamishness factor.

What makes the end-of-life choices conversation tough to initiate is also the fear of appearing over-eager to discuss your own inheritance. Write professors Marsha A. Goetting and Vicki L. Schmall in a Montana State University Guide: “Sometimes people hesitate to discuss financial concerns with their parents for fear of appearing overly interested in their inheritances. After all, talking about passing on Mom and Dad’s money usually means talking about the circumstances under which it will be transferred. Few of us want to start a conversation with, “Dad, when you die…" or “Mom, if you become unable to make decisions.…"

From the parents’ point of view as well, it is difficult to think about your own mortality and the inter-generational transfer of assets is many times fraught with undercurrents of tension. Questions like, will the child who supports me more stop the care if I divide assets equally? What if I want to leave all my things to the faith-based organisation I belong to? Will this be an issue with the children? For both sets of people across the generation divide, it may be easier to begin the conversation by either discussing the story of somebody else who did or did not put affairs in order before moving on. Or getting a trusted family friend to help initiate it.

Beyond the basic registered will document, the conversation needs to move on to end-of-life choices. A friend’s mother was sure she did not want to look into the eyes of the ventilator when she breathed her last. That choice was respected when the time came.

End Note: And those with minor children may need to think about putting their own wills in place along with their parents’. It is a morbid thought, but you need to imagine the choices in front of your minor kids and dependant parents if you both were to have an untimely death. And I found out that kids worry about it, though they are loath to bring it up due to feelings of guilt and fear. Just because we don’t talk about these things doesn’t mean they don’t exist or cause fear.

Monika Halan works in the area of financial literacy and financial intermediation policy and is a certified financial planner. She is editor, Mint Money, and Yale World Fellow 2011. She can be reached at

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Published: 27 Aug 2013, 07:13 PM IST
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