Never heard of heritage planning? You will, if advisor Cam Thornton has his way.
“Most people are concerned throughout their life with money,” says Thornton, 58, founder of Cameron Thornton Associates, an independent advisory firm in Burbank, Calif. “How much do they have now, how much will they have in retirement and how much will be left to their heirs? But what’s equally important is a person’s story. What is it that has made you who you are? That’s the missing link in most planning today.”
With their new novel What Matters, Thornton and co-author Rod Zeeb hope to shine a light on heritage planning, which helps prepare heirs to receive their financial and emotional inheritance. As Thornton, a certified financial planner, puts it, “Your legacy is defined by what you value, not by the valuables you have amassed.” Without intentionally preserving the former, he adds, the latter may well be lost.
In the novel, the dying 82-year-old Martin Forrestal takes up a pad of paper and in large letters writes: What Matters? During a long night of reflection, he identifies the values that matter most to him — like love, forgiveness, leadership, determination, compassion, faith, sacrifice, philanthropy and family unity. Many of the stories in the book were inspired by real-life clients counseled by both Thornton and Zeeb, a former estate planning attorney who heads The Heritage Institute in Lake Oswego, Ore.
“What I would hope readers would take away is, first and foremost, to slow down and savor their own treasure chest of memories, to recall and share their own stories. Sharing your passions reveals what has made you who you are,” says Thornton. “Most families don’t know the whole story, the ups and downs that are a part of life. It’s really critical that you share your feelings so that others can share an appreciation for the road already traveled.”
Thornton was drawn to heritage planning 16 years ago when, after a client died, the family imploded. “I had done everything correctly from my end,” he says. “The estate planning attorney had done everything correctly from his end. The focus was always on the money — and it didn’t matter in the end. When I began to think about the values of family, of stories, it just clicked for me.” Soon after, Thornton created a process called The Family Financial Philosophy System, intended to bridge the gap between passing on what one owns and passing on what one is.
A few years ago, Thornton joined forces with The Heritage Institute, which advocates the like-minded Heritage Process. Today, through consulting firm Navigator Legacy Partners, Thornton works exclusively with heritage planning clients. One of his drivers: the sorry statistics involving successful wealth transfer. According to Thornton, 60% of families waste away their wealth by the end of the second generation. By the end of the third generation, 90% of families have little or nothing left of it.
Thornton’s work starts with a heritage family statement, a document that serves ideally as a foundation for all other planning. Through guided discovery, he asks open-ended questions to help the client recall past experiences. Through the client’s stories, values emerge: Serve others. Give it all you’ve got. Keep strong family ties. Lead a purpose-filled life.