Keeping family finances safe: communicate, keep records, watch credit reports

by Shelton on August 27th, 2012

filed under Finances

Thats the cornerstone of every great business, Ritrievi said. Its the cornerstone of every great relationship. Its the cornerstone of a good financial plan. 

Share the burden

Ideally, money matters are a shared duty in every marriage, Ritrievi said. Communicate early in the relationship about life goals kids, home buying, retirement and their financial implications, he said. Then, budget monthly and avoid accumulating credit card debt.

You can even set up a fun financial date, said Mary Rosenkrans, director of financial education for the state Department of Banking. Sit down at a favorite place to take inventory of financial matters and revisit shared goals.

The important thing is to set aside time to have that regular money talk, Rosenkrans said. Its so easy to put it on the back burner. 

The notebook

Whether youre dealing with your own household finances or an aging relatives, accountant John Steffee of Pfister and Rompalo in Wormleysburg suggests a notebook listing bank accounts, insurance policies, credit cards, usernames and passwords. Put a copy in a safe place, or scan it into a secure computer file.

Rosenkrans suggests keeping financial records in a safe deposit box or at the home of a trusted loved one to prevent theft or loss from fire or flood.

Many senior centers and expos offer booklets that elderly people can fill in with financial information that family members should know, said Denise Getgen, chief of the Pennsylvania Department of Agings consumer protection division. 

Check credit reports

Everyone is entitled to a free credit report once a year through Couples need to realize that each person has an individual credit report, Rosenkrans said. Things like joint credit cards will appear on both spouses credit reports, but a card solely in one spouses name wont show on the others report.

If you do have a spouse that is hiding some serious debt, the only way to find out is when its too late, Rosenkrans said. The best thing is to have those conversations early on, and it goes back to communications. Its really not about dollars and cents. Its really about your money attitudes and your money values. 

Relationship building

Financial exploitation of the elderly is on the rise in Pennsylvania; its the third most common type of abuse, Getgen said. Spouses, children and other caregivers should develop relationships that allow for open communication about how to help with finances, where records are kept and what to do in an emergency, she said.

But she also cautioned that perpetrators are often family members, so older adults should manage themselves as much as they can. 

Be specific

Steffee once averted disaster for an elderly client on the verge of sharing her financial information with someone claiming she won the Irish sweepstakes.

It might not be a bad idea to just discuss with someone thats never had financial obligations the fact that theres sharks and wolves out there, Steffee said.

To build a trusting relationship, avoid confrontation, he said. Instead, ask specific questions.

Dont accuse them of being stupid, or dont accuse them of not being able to handle their money, Steffee said. 

Legal affairs

Knowing a parents financial information might be crucial, but be sure that someone has power of attorney to trigger action in the case of death or debilitation, Steffee said.

Have an attorney prepare it so it will hold up legally, and review the power of attorney, will, and pension documents every few years to make sure they still meet legal requirements and reflect changing life circumstances, such as property sales or divorces in the family. 

Red flags

The warning signs that someones financially exploited can include any noticeable, significant change in banking habits, Getgen said. Theyre spending more. Theyre lending money. They use an ATM card excessively.

Red flags also include overdrafts, borrowing money, furtive phone calls and relationships with strangers that are shrouded in secrecy.

Signs of diminished capacity to manage finances can include unpaid or unopened bills, utility shutoff notices, phone calls from debt collectors, and a decline in grooming habits. 

Tax time

Tax time is an excellent time to review finances with a spouse or elderly relative, Steffee said. Many aging people appreciate offers to help prepare returns, and it gives children a peek into parents financial health. Something amiss on a bank statement missed bill payments, for instance offers a chance for specific questions that can open a broader dialog.

Some people arrange to have their financial adviser or a child receive their 1099s and other tax documents, Steffee said.

Mom and dad dont have to worry about collecting all the tax information, he said. We work that out, and it works well.


Additional resources: 

  • State Department of Banking: Visit for tips on talking about money with spouses, parents and kids. 
  • National Endowment for Financial Education: Its organizes plain-language tips around life events, such as marriage, births of children and home buying. 
  • Credit reports: Get one free credit report a year at Dont confuse it with commercial services that claim to be free but require paid subscriptions for monthly monitoring. 
  • Area Agencies on Aging: Report suspected abuse, financial or otherwise, to the state Elder Abuse Hotline 800-490-8505 or to a county Area Agency on Agings protective services unit. 

Dauphin County: 800-328-0058,, 

Cumberland County Office of Aging and Community Services, 888-697-0371, ext. 6110,, 

Perry County: 717-582-5128,,

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