Know your parents' finances before they're gone

It may well be just how it was with my generation, but I suspect that children are still uncomfortable discussing finances with their parents.  Other than the obvious signs of jobs and possessions, we assume our parents are doing okay handling their finances. Not always.

In my entire life I don't even remember overhearing a conversation about money from my parents. They both had jobs, working man types and we always had food on the table and clothes on our backs. We went on vacations, albeit camping, every year and we had a few "toys" like mini bikes and a skidoo. My parents drove late model cars and I don't ever remember not going somewhere because we couldn't afford it. We never went to Florida or did things like the theatre or had any luxuries, and there was no question that none of us would be going on to university, but we were never poverty stricken, at least not that I remember. In my own life, when we were just starting out and the factory I was working in went on strike, and I did not get any strike pay because I was not in the union yet, nor could I get unemployment insurance because I was on strike, things got pretty scary for a bit. I remember having nothing more than potatoes and onions in the house for a couple of days because what money we had went to baby formula.

My Dad always worked hard and I don't ever remember him being out of work except after the fire at the refinery when he was in hospital for several months. My Mum worked with the bank forever and still did after they moved out West. My Dad was a Real Estate Broker for a time here in Ontario, but he couldn't take being away from the family as much as the career demanded. When they moved out West he got a factory job with what later became Western Star Trucks. At the time I didn't understand how he could go from broker to factory worker, but I realized later that he got his family life back with that job. Come 3:30 he was gone, leaving the job behind and they had a camper and a boat and they went everywhere. They had a good life even though they never had any real money to speak of.

They both retired early, in their late fifties and we assumed that they took early pensions or had money stashed somewhere to live on. Both my parents drank and my Dad smoked, although he "hid" it from my Mum. Yeah, right. Dad loved his steaks. Mum loved to gamble and went to the bingo and the casino all the time. For seventeen years every winter they went south to a fifth wheel trailer in Yuma, Arizona. Dad always bragged about how much cheaper it was to live there. I learned much later that my uncle let them stay in the trailer and ended up giving it to them in his will. When they couldn't travel south anymore because of the health insurance they sold it for something around eight thousand dollars.

Back in Ontario, with help from the Veterans' Loans Program, they managed to buy an old farmhouse in Streetsville. Before that we had been living with my grandmother on Hugo Avenue in Toronto. To my knowledge my parents never owned a home before Streetsville. They had lived on the island and in an apartment in Ajax and on a farm that would become Don Mills today, but they always rented or worked for it. Streetsville was the princely sum of $10,000, but it had no indoor plumbing and was heated with a stove. It was like going back in time to the eighteen hundreds. The next years were spent renovating the place, putting in central heating and indoor plumbing and many other things, including aluminum siding the entire place, so I assumed my parents got the money from somewhere.

In 1970 life for all of us changed dramatically. My parent packed up and moved out West to Kelowna. They had tried to sell the place in Streetsville before they left, but the market wasn't good, so they had taken it off the market and rented it instead. This was a fatal mistake. Not only did the guy renting it not pay the rent, but he left the place with the heat shut-off. The water pipes froze and the place was flooded, damaging everything, especially the original wood floors. My Dad had to come down by bus to assess the damage and repair everything. I don't know what they eventually sold it for, but a lot of the money went to a lawyer trying to sue the tenant for all the damage. Before any settlement was reached the lawyer committed suicide because he had embezzled money from another client, so my Dad lost everything as well.

While they were renting a house on Marshall Street in Kelowna, they would camp every week-end at a place called Shady Rest out in what was called Westbank at the time, now West Kelowna. They had a spot reserved right on the beach and one day the manager came by to tell them that they would not be able to camp there anymore because it was being converted into a mobile home park. My parents jumped on it and were amongst the first three people to lease lots on the beach. Somehow they managed to finance a mobile home costing $12,000 and put it on the site, where they would enjoy life for the next thirty-five years. It was an incredible spot, year round.

My Dad never seemed interested in starting any kind of business, but he had called me one day in a bit of a panic, telling me that friends of his were building a theme park and they had run into some money troubles. If we could come up with Nineteen Thousand dollars we would get forty-nine percent of the business, which was to be called The Flintstones. My Dad had been working part-time for the people that owned it, building log boats and many other things. He was very talented that way. My wife at the time would have nothing of it. I offered to put our house money in trust for two years and, if the theme park failed, we would come back to Ontario, but she wouldn't budge. My Dad could not come up with his share either, so we both lost out. The park went on to make over a hundred thousand dollars per week for many years and was eventually sold to interests from Calgary for 2.7 million dollars. Yes, our ships had come in and sailed without us.

When I moved out west in 1993 it was primarily because my mother had been diagnosed with fifth stage melanoma and didn't have long to live. I wanted to spend whatever time she had left with her and Dad, not to mention my family out there. Mum and Dad seemed happy and they had their little pleasures, like "Happy Time" every day. My Dad was always puttering around with something. For a time he made little animal windmills, like Tweety and Sylvester. People loved them and he couldn't keep up, but I don't think he ever made any money.

Life changed again beyond drastically when my Dad died in my arms in the spring of 2005. That's when I got the rude awakening on their finances. As my father's executor and now my mother's care giver I had to know everything and it soon became clear they were not in good shape. First, my Dad had no insurance with a death benefit, which sure would have helped. There wasn't even any money to cover the costs of any funeral, even though his wishes were to be cremated and not buried. He also didn't want a sad funeral so I had a celebration of his life instead. Still the costs of the very basic process were twenty-five hundred dollars, money we did not have. I was fortunate to find a most compassionate funeral director who asked if my Dad was a Vet and then told me I could get the money from the Vet's association and that she would wait for the money. I have no idea what I would have done if she hadn't told me that.

Second, they had built up a large line of credit, too large, with a local bank and hadn't been making any payments except interest for many years. It looked like this is how my Dad dealt with their expenses being more than their fixed incomes for quite some time, if only because there was nothing that he had borrowed a specific amount for. It was the a very big build-up from their draw and it was allowed based solely on their thirty-five years with the bank. It is important to note here that although they owned their mobile trailer they did not own the land it sat on, in fact, they paid dearly to rent it, four hundred and twenty-five dollars a month when Dad passed away.

Dad's pension would now obviously stop, but his small Veteran's pension would thankful run for a year, so that was going to help a little. At the time of his death their home was on the market, but the decision was made that it would be too much for Mum with her Alzheimer's to lose Dad and then be forced to move, so we took it off the market. She was also getting worse and would need to go into a care facility, something that was not available at the time because there were over three hundred people on the "emergency" list already. I knew it was going to be tough to survive, but I hoped to be able to take advantage of programs such as Community Futures to see what I could do for money.

The biggest shock came with the arrival of my Dad's Visa bill. He owed a shocking fourteen thousand dollars and with an interest rate of nineteen percent. I had remembered him being very stressed about something with Visa, if only because it was the first time he had ever mentioned anything about their finances. He said that something had gone wrong with the automatic payment they were to take from their account and he hadn't noticed it on the bank statement, and now they were pressuring him to make up the back payments. He didn't say how much he owed or what the payments were, just that it was giving him grief. I can see why.

There were so many issues with this Visa account. First, how in the world did he ever manage to owe that much in the first place? And why, when they had a line of credit with the bank, and at five percent, didn't he just increase the line of credit and not up the Visa? When I delved into this with the bank, the first excuse I got was that Visa and the bank are separate operations and there is no coordination between the two. Weak excuse, at best. Second, the reason he owed so much was that he had called asking for an increase of ten thousand dollars to put a new engine in his disaster of a boat, something that the bank should never have allowed. When I questioned why they didn't at least offer to increase the line of credit, they had no answers and admitted that they should have looked after my father better. I told them I at the very least wanted the ridiculous interest charges reversed and the amount added to their line of credit. I then realized that for some unknown reason the account was only in my Dad's name, so in my mind the account was gone with him. I asked them to show me any documentation where my mother had agreed to pay the account. I also checked the law and discovered the debt did not automatically fall to my mother.

The next disaster with the bank was that, as executor of my Dad's estate now, I had to redo all the paperwork for the account. As soon as I notified the bank that my Dad had passed away they asked for his debit card and they cut it up right in front of me. No problem, I figured, because they would now give me one in my name for the account, right? My own bank, BMO, had issued me a card the minute I opened the account with them. No such luck. They then inform me that it will take a "couple of weeks" to issue me a card. When I asked how I was supposed to pay for things like groceries now, they had no answer. I had to carry cash.

Next thing they called me up to ask me to come in and bring my mother to sign new papers and I receive our debit cards. Remember that my mother's Alzheimer's was so bad she could not possibly control her money or have a debit card. She was a gambler and loved the casino, but with her memory she could easily blow all her money and not remember doing it, so a debit card was out of the question. I stressed with the manager that she was not to even mention this to my mother or sparks would fly. When we got to her office the very first thing she did was pull out my mother's debit card and ask her to sign it! I had to say that my mother was not allowed to have one, and that set her off. She blew up and stormed out of the office, hollering about not being able to have her own money and making quite a scene. I told the lady I was dealing with to go and get her because it wasn't my fault she hadn't listened to me. The manager ended up calming down my mother and explaining that I was just in charge of things like Dad was now and that the bank would do everything they could to help her. All total BS.

I explained that we were going to be losing Dad's pension now, but that I was going to try to get unemployment or find a way to make money to help out, and the bank manager said they would allow any increase I needed on the line of credit to help. I said that as soon as I could find a care facility for my mother I would be selling her place and pay down the line of credit. I mentioned that there were things I could do using my renovation experience to add value to the home and she agreed to extend whatever financing I needed. So, as bad as things were, I thought we would make it, at least until we could sell the place.

The next few months were challenging on so many levels, but we managed. Mum always blew up at me when I told her that things were different now and she could not afford to spend the kind of money she had been at the casino. This was a weekly fight. When the winter set in heating became a major issue. She insisted on having the heat set at twenty-five degrees, which was like an oven. We had a pellet stove in the living room, but the pellets were very expensive. Their place was also the only one in the park still using oil, which was also very expensive. In one three week period we spent $750 on pellets and oil. I kept the pellet stove blasting for her in the living room, but I kept turning down the thermostat for the furnace and every time she walked by it she turned it back up, swearing at me that it was her home and she wanted heat.

It started to drain our limited finances and my attempts to get work were also a disaster. I had managed to register for a course through Community Futures and get Mum into daycare, but she absolutely refused to go, so I lost the course and the funding. On top of all that the bank suddenly chose this time to inform me that they had changed their minds and would not allow any increase in the line of credit. We hit rock bottom when I had no money for either pellets or oil and we had no heat. Finally I managed to convince their oil supplier that, based on the thirty-five years we had been a customer they would deliver oil and let me pay for it as soon as the money came in. We would have frozen to death. The days my mother had to wear three layers of clothes and her coat were pure hell because she could never remember why it was so cold in there and begged me constantly to turn on the heat. It was hopeless.

The point here is that all of this could have been avoided if I had asked my father to share some information with me, just in case something happened to either one of them. I know this is difficult because no parent wants their children to interfere in what they view as their private affairs, but the reality is that one day you will be dealing with it whether you like it or not. It's a whole lot easier to ask the questions and find the information you will need when your parents are there to answer your questions than it is after they are gone.