Highly-skilled accountants and estate attorneys are vital to constructing sound wealth-transfer plans, but sometimes it is the matters these experts cannot address that pose the greatest challenges.
Wealthy families are more than investment accounts and trusts. They are comprised of people who feel all the affections, fears and resentments that underpin human relationships—here playing out under the stress of dealing with complex challenges that less wealthy families seldom have to face.
We have all read stories about prominent families disintegrating into squabbling factions over perceived slights and unmet expectations. By the time that parents, siblings, and cousins are only speaking to each other through lawyers, these situations are extremely difficult to rectify and are inevitably damaging to everyone involved. Even those who win in court often have lost more than they have gained. And, of course, the cost isn’t measured only—or even principally— in dollars, but in lost relationships that no amount of money can repair.
In our experience, the best way to protect your family from such torment is to expose and address potential sources of strife as early and often as possible. Each family is unique of course. That said, many ultra-high-net-worth families do share common stresses and concerns that can foster conflict. We think it’s helpful to group these issues into three categories: Shame, Resentment and Fear.
You may want to consider whether some of these issues are blocking you from engaging fully in the most productive wealth planning process and, more importantly, limiting the prospects for continued peace and harmony in your family. Ask yourself if the questions below are ones that come up for you.
Those who inherit wealth often struggle with shame, and worry if they fully deserve it. Wealth does give you opportunities others don’t have, but it also raises many concerns about what obligations you have: towards your children, your partner, your friends and other members of the family. Perhaps you have asked yourself questions like:
- If my parents don’t talk to me about money, does it mean they’re embarrassed about how they accumulated it? Or does it mean they don’t trust me?
- How should I respond when my friends, or even my cousins, ask for details about our family’s wealth? Or when they tease me about it?
- Does it make me seem selfish if I don’t donate to every charity that asks? Why is it so hard for me to just say “No”?
- Do others at work think I only got this
promotion because my uncle owns the company? Did I?
- Is my inherited wealth any less legitimate than
my spouse’s W-2 income?
Resentment invariably springs from the sense that one is not being treated fairly—that what you’re getting is somehow less than you’re due. This gap can take many forms in ultra-high-net-worth families: an unfair share of an inheritance, a less influential role in the family business or family foundation, or perhaps a lack of simple respect. Sometimes a family member might feel that he or she has been given heavier burdens or responsibilities than others. There is no magic cure for disagreements over how family resources should be allocated. However, effectively communicating what each family member can expect and the rationale behind critical family decisions is a very good place to start. Perhaps some of these questions have arisen in your family:
- How can my parents insist I have a prenuptial agreement when they never had one themselves?
- Why do my brother and I share equally in the estate plan when my parents have already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on his failed business ventures?
- Is it really fair for my parents to give equal
annual gifts to all the grandchildren, when my sister has four children and I
only have one?
- Must I really keep supporting the causes that my
Some fears can be useful, and others harmful. The fear of market volatility may push you toward unduly conservative strategies. The fear of burdening children may lead to a lack of communication and preparation. Try to understand the nature of your worries and explore whether they are preventing you from making decisions that actually may increase family security. Maybe you have asked yourself:
- If I tell my children, or even my advisors, the true extent of my wealth, will someone else find out and use it to harm my family?
- Will the mere knowledge of the fact of my wealth hurt my children by destroying their drive and initiative?
- Will leaving my estate to my children isolate them from their peers (or cousins)?
- If I donate the majority of my estate to charity, will it turn my children against me?
- Suppose I give too much away and then can’t support myself?
No one can make all of her or his important family decisions rationally and dispassionately. Instead, embrace the very human reality that emotions like shame, resentment and fear affect everyone. If you can accept the wellspring of these emotions, you can bring important issues out of the shadows to be understood and resolved. To get the process started, consider the following:
- How do my attitudes toward wealth reflect those of my parents? How do they differ?
- What blocks me from sharing my deeper fears and concerns with my family and my advisors?
- What are the gaps in my
family’s basic wealth management knowledge? In my own?
- What would my estate plan
look like if I didn’t worry about
what anyone else thought? How about my charitable giving?
If one of the core goals of your wealth planning is to sustain and promote family harmony, conversations cannot be limited to trust structures and investment strategies. It’s important to at least consider the emotional dynamics that influence your own decision-making, and that affect your capacity to build an enduring legacy together. If you would find it helpful, ask your Advisor to bring in one of our experts in family dynamics to facilitate these conversations. They may feel a bit awkward in the early stages, but we see they are almost always productive. We believe that the only truly successful wealth plans are those that result in strong and successful families.