Will Rogers once said “There’s no hurry to make a Will. Just see your lawyer the day before you die.” And apparently a lot of people have the same sentiment. Even those who have “made a Will” are not that much closer to ideal planning — because they’ve put off the important (although generally not particularly time urgent) planning that can make a real difference towards achieving their primary goals. And this lack of planning aligned with base level goals is not necessarily any less prevalent among the wealthy than of those of more modest means.
Let me tell you about a family* of significant wealth to illustrate the point. This particular family has had incredible wealth accumulation over the past 30 – 40 years. Well beyond anything that they could have imagined early on. They’ve done estate planning along the way and sheltered millions, maybe even billions, from the transfer tax system. The trust documents are elegant, and the assets allocated to the trustees have continued to increase in value since they were established when the children were in their teens or twenties. Perhaps the total net worth of the trusts even exceeds that of the senior generation. Regardless, when the kids were young, there wasn’t much said, and there wasn’t an obvious point in time to tell beneficiaries the full story of the wealth set aside for their benefit. In fact, these now 40- or 50-something children only know that there’s a lot of wealth in the family and they get a nice extra bump in income every March 5th (some of you will know why on that date!).
In these circumstances, the senior generation often fears the unknown impact of full communication on these matters with the next generation. Mom and dad wonder what they can do, and feel like there may be very little that can be accomplished at this late stage in the game. And to a certain extent, they’re right. There is only so much they can accomplish. However, they have a tremendous opportunity to provide leadership by giving room to, and communicating confidence in, the next generation to lead the third generation.
There is some good work being done related to the “rising generation” — a term that fellow practitioner, Keith Whitaker of Wise Counsel Research Associates,** has noted here that he and his partners prefer to the more common reference to “next gens.” I agree with the subtle, but important, difference in terminology — particularly when it comes to the next generations. If families of wealth are to be successful as families and remain wealthy, the next generations must rise to the challenge to make it happen. The senior generation’s last challenge is to trust them to do so.
Frankly, there is a thriving cottage industry that revolves around making the senior generation feel like they can achieve a utopian version of family by writing down their values and aspirations for their family in an “at death letter” or a short and sweet list of principles that’s distributed to the family at Christmas in the Caymans. Perhaps those securing the services and experiences offered will feel a bit better about themselves for having done so — but families do not succeed because of the work of a single generation. They succeed over time, and continued success always falls to the next generation, and then to the next, and then to the next. So unfortunately, a single generation focus for individuals and couples in their 60’s, 70’s and 80’s is short-sighted and probably doomed to fail.
So for those who are starting the Family Wealth Counseling journey late in life, perhaps the best advice that can be given is: give the kids a chance. It might be the most trust and faith you’ve placed in them financially in their entire lives. You should be thoughtful about it, and you certainly have an important role — but your success almost necessarily be their success because you can’t out-parent your kids with grandparenting. And you may be surprised you with what the “rising generation” can accomplish when given the chance.
What do you think? I certainly don’t want to minimize the role of the senior generation in this piece — but I fear that the role of the junior generations is often not prominent enough (or even at all) in family wealth counseling engagements.
* This family is an amalgam of a number of situations that I am aware of — although I’ve intentionally thought only of families that I am not presently working with for purposes of the illustration.
** See, The Voice of the Rising Generation: Family Wealth and Wisdom, written by Jay Hughes, Susan Massenzio and Keith Whitaker, for a much fuller treatment of the subject.