Morgan Stanley
  • Wealth Management
  • Feb 1, 2019

Essential Family Wealth Conversations

Advice from Mitzi Perdue, heiress to the Sheraton Hotel and Perdue Farms fortunes, on how to foster and preserve family unity by educating younger generations on family history and creating forums for productive discussions in times of transition.

Mitzi Purdue met regularly with a circle of friends who jokingly referred to themselves as, “The Famous Last Names Club.” Like Ms. Perdue, heiress to the Sheraton Hotel and Perdue Farms legacies, the women were all members of notably wealthy families. Unlike Ms. Purdue, though, most of her friends frequently spoke of serious rifts in their families. These conversations started her thinking about why some highly affluent families remain supportive and high functioning and others do not. Her conclusion was that cohesive families make conscious efforts to create culture, or as she puts it, “The automatic way we do things.”

Discussing Family History Over Family Meals
So how does a family establish a positive culture? Ms. Purdue refers to research conducted by Professor Robyn Fivush and her Family Narratives Project. The research indicates that children who know more of their family stories tend to have higher self-esteem, higher academic competence, higher social competence and fewer behavior problems.(1) Developing that knowledge, she suggests, involves spending time with each other around the dinner table, telling family stories and having meaningful conversations about your life and your values.

Starting the Conversation Early and Often
David Bokman, Co-Head of Morgan Stanley Family Office Resources, believes that family wealth conversations can hardly start too young. Noting that it is a natural temptation to shield children from awareness of family wealth so they can enjoy “normal” childhoods, he suggests the lack of communication can create the sense that wealth is a sort of dirty secret. In their fireside chat at the recent Morgan Stanley Private Wealth Management Women’s Summit, Mitzi Perdue added that she was taught, from the earliest ages, that she was a part of something larger than herself. It was not that wealth made her family better than any other, but that it carried the responsibilities of stewardship. “We were taught that you don’t disgrace that.”

Clear Expectations and Honest Disagreement
As children grow into their maturity, they develop expectations. In highly affluent families, David Bokman says that these expectations can easily turn into resentments over perceived unfairness about everything from the role they play in the family business to their share of an inheritance. He strongly urges regular family conversations, not only about what to expect, but also about the rationale behind those decisions. These conversations should provide families with a forum to air respectful disagreements. Mitzi Perdue added, “The Perdue family has what we call ‘The Covenant.’ It’s good to argue, debate and even yell a bit. But when the decision is made, we all come together behind it. You never go to the press, you never go to the lawyers.”

Bringing New Family Members Into the Conversation
Families are always changing, and family conversations have to change with them. Children grow, bring partners and spouses into the family and have children of their own. Parents and children may divorce, or be widowed, and remarry. David Bokman argues that ultra high net worth families need intentional practices to welcome new members into the life of a family. Conversations about prenuptial agreements can be awkward, not only between fiancées but also between parents and children, so some coaching might be helpful. You also need to decide and communicate what roles a new family member may play within family foundations, family councils and other institutions. Mitzi Perdue also suggests that it is important to pass family lore along to new members, and has even written a book to share family history with her children-in-law. She also gives ritual gifts to new family members, and has even helped young family members hold a second wedding ceremony for the benefit of elder family members who were unable to travel to the original event.

Creating Intentional Harmony
Healthy family relationships take work, no matter what the circumstances. Add the additional complications and complexities of significant wealth, and the work needs to become all the more deliberate. David Bokman believes that intentionality is at the core of these efforts, as you don’t become a supportive high-functioning family by accident. As Mitzi Purdue suggests, “As an ultra high net worth family, you have so many centripetal forces pulling you apart. You need mechanisms to bring you back together.”

How Well Do You Know Your Family History?
Professor Fivush and her colleague, Marshall Duke, developed a list of 20 questions to help families gauge how well they understand their family lore. If you want to try it around your dinner table, remember that the process is more important than the result. Here’s your chance to fill in gaps in knowledge and start a conversation about your family history.