It’s wonderful to see so many billionaires pledging to share their wealth with charity. From Bill Gates and Warren Buffett to Star Wars’ George Lucas, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, these moguls may not only help make the world a better place, but avoid some of the complicated family issues that inheritances engender.
At times, clients planning to pass their wealth (or not) to family members may need your help to step back and reflect before they cause misunderstandings, hurts, resentment and anger. Here, for example, are some scenarios that call for serious and creative deliberation.
Q: My widowed client has provided financial help to her children and grandchildren for years. Now grown up, they ignore her unless they need her to bail them out of scrapes. Feeling “enough is enough,” she recently drew up a new will that bypasses her irresponsible progeny. I’m uneasy with her decision to hide the new will’s provisions from the kids and grandkids. Should I encourage her to reconsider?
A: Not necessarily. But you do need to educate her about the tremendous psychological and emotional damage she may cause if she makes these changes in secret.
Perhaps you can help her explore any memories she has of better times with her kids and grandkids. An ethical will in which she states her wishes for them (if she has any wishes that are positive) may help provide a degree of healing.
You might see if she would be willing to meet with the kids and grandkids to talk about their relationships (or lack of relationships, in this case) and communicate her decision about her money. She could get together with each generation separately, if desired. If the meetings are in your office, you might also consider inviting a family therapist to help you ease tensions.
Q: A client couple has had several heated discussions in my office about philanthropic giving. I suspect the husband feels expansive about giving away their wealth because he grew up in a family where he always felt there would be enough money. By contrast, his wife’s parents had to scrimp to raise her and her siblings. Her view is that her and her husband’s wealth should be devoted solely to their family. Is there a tactful way to bring this couple into balance?
A: I’d meet with each of them separately to explore their family history around money and legacies, as well as their beliefs and preferences about where their wealth should go.
In these individual sessions, I would also invite each client to try to understand the other spouse’s point of view. For example, the wife may want to provide well for herself and her family to make up for feelings of deprivation from her childhood, but you can ask her if she admires her husband’s willingness to help people he doesn’t even know. If the husband feels his wife is being selfish, reflecting on her upbringing and her fears may help give him more compassion for her.
Once you listen empathetically to each spouse, you can bring them together again in your office. Encourage each of them to play back what the other says, adding what makes sense about it from the speaker’s perspective and what else the speaker might be feeling.
Q: I recently helped my wealthy client establish a foundation and develop an endowment strategy. Like Warren Buffett, he believes in not leaving his kids a big inheritance. One of his daughters is fine with this, but the other daughter and his son are resentful and angry. This is a source of pain to their father, who has asked me how he can get the discontented duo on board with his philosophy. I would appreciate your suggestions.
A: This decision is ultimately the father’s, of course, but the better his children understand his motives as well as his desire for each of them to flourish, the easier it will be for them to make peace with it.