For Mother's Day, Help Mom Get Organized

In addition to traditional gifts like candy and flowers, consider spending a few hours helping your mom organize her financial, legal and medical records so that she -- and you -- knows where she stands.
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Mother's Day is today, May 8. In addition to traditional gifts like candy and flowers, consider spending a few hours helping your mom organize her financial, legal and medical records so that she -- and you -- knows where she stands. Being prepared will make it much easier to take appropriate actions should an issue ever arise.

Here are a few key areas to sort out:

Retirement income sources. Gather these documents so your mom will have a better idea how much income will be available throughout retirement:

  • If she's still working, your mom should already receive an annual statement from Social Security showing estimated benefits at varying retirement ages. (You'll also need your dad's statement to determine any potential spousal or survivor benefits for which she might be eligible.)

  • Annual statements from pension plans for which she's eligible, showing updated benefit estimates. This might also include potential spousal death benefits if your father has a pension. To track down old pensions, first contact the employer; if that doesn't work, contact the Public Benefit Guaranty Corporation, which protects and guarantees most pension plans, including those that closed or went bankrupt, PensionHelp America, or the Employee Benefits Security Administration.
  • IRA, 401(k) or other retirement savings plan statements.
  • Bank statements for checking, savings, money market and CD accounts.
  • Company stock and bond certificates and statements for other investment accounts.
  • Outstanding debts. Also gather monthly statements and outstanding balances owed for major expenses including:

    • Home mortgage or other property loans

  • Home equity loan or line of credit
  • Car loan or lease
  • Credit cards
  • Medical bills
  • Personal loans
  • Life and death documents. Your mom should have documents instructing how she'd like her affairs handled, both while she's living and after death. Look for:

    • Medical, homeowner/renter, auto, life, disability and long-term care insurance policies.

  • A will (and possibly a trust) outlining how she wants her estate managed after death.
  • Durable power of attorney and health care proxy specifying who will make her financial and medical decisions if she becomes incapacitated. Also, a living will tells doctors which medical treatments and life-support procedures she does or doesn't want performed.
  • Birth certificate, marriage license, Social Security card, funeral and burial plans, safe deposit box information and other important paperwork.
  • With all these documents, keep in mind:

    • Review them regularly and make updates when situations change. Make sure that designated beneficiaries for your mom's will, life insurance and retirement plans accurately reflect her current wishes. For example, if a beneficiary dies or a new grandchild is born, she may want to amend the documents.

  • Make sure her homeowner's insurance policy accurately reflects inflationary increases to the value of her home and its contents.
  • Make backup copies of everything and store in a few safe locations.
  • Contact information. Gather information for your mother's professional service providers, including doctors, dentist, pharmacy, lawyer, financial advisor, bank or credit union and insurance companies. Also give these providers your own contact information in case of emergencies.

    Other resources. If your mom doesn't have a will, durable power of attorney and health care proxy, consider consulting an attorney specializing in estate planning -- another great gift idea. Free or low-cost legal assistance is often available for lower-income people. A few helpful sites include, Legal Services Corporation and the American Bar Association.

    Social Security has created a special website for women that provides information on retirement, disability and other issues -- in English and Spanish. You can also order or download their informative, free publication, "What Every Woman Should Know." (SSA Publication No. 05-10127). Take some time to review these materials with your mom. You can also call toll-free at 800-772-1213 to ask questions.

    Another good resource is the Women's Saving Initiative, a program jointly developed by Heinz Family Philanthropies, the Women's Institute for a Secure Retirement (WISER) and Visa Inc. This free program features a book called "What Women Need to Know About Retirement," which you can order on CD or download as a PDF or audio file.

    And finally, you can help your mom estimate her retirement needs by using online interactive calculators, including:

    • Social Security's Retirement Estimator, which automatically enters her earnings information from its records to estimate her projected Social Security benefits under different scenarios, such as age at retirement, future earnings projections, etc. They also have a more detailed calculator you can download to make more precise estimates.
  • AARP has a Retirement Calculator that helps calculate how much she'll need to create a secure retirement.
  • If you need professional help, consider providing your mom a session with a professional financial planner who can design a personalized retirement strategy. If you don't know one, the Financial Planning Association is a good place to start your search.

    Discussing finances may not be as much fun as candy and flowers, but your mom will appreciate your concern for her financial future.

    This article is intended to provide general information and should not be considered legal, tax or financial advice. It's always a good idea to consult a legal, tax or financial advisor for specific information on how certain laws apply to you and about your individual financial situation.

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