Family structures in the U.S. are growing more diverse, and so is the complexity they face when it comes to financial matters, according to a study of high-net-worth and ultra-high-net-worth individuals by RBC Wealth Management.

How families manage that complexity will have a big, lasting effect on the estimated $3.2 trillion in wealth expected to change hands in the U.S. over the next generation, the study said.

“Society’s diversity is reflected in the diverse family configurations we see today,” Angie O’Leary, head of wealth planning at RBC Wealth Management-U.S., said in a statement.

“It can be extraordinarily difficult to plan for the next week much less for something that won’t happen for years to come, but for families with complex structures, it’s all the more important to begin the process sooner than later.”

Blended families, comprising children from previous marriages, were least prepared to transfer wealth, but had the greatest need because of their complex family structures, the report found. Only 24% of blended families in the survey reported that they had a full plan, and 37% said they had done nothing to prepare.

Nuclear families — defined in the study as two married people, either heterosexual or same-sex, with children — were only slightly better prepared than many blended families. Fifty-six percent of nuclear families said they had drafted a will, but only 26% had a full wealth transfer plan and 29% had made no plans.

In contrast, single-parent families were the most prepared for wealth transfer and more confident regarding financial matters, with 38% reporting that they had a wealth transfer plan in place.

“Single parents may have little choice to take the lead, but their hands-on approach still sets them apart from other family structures,” O’Leary said.

She said all families should start early to think about the security of family assets, and regularly review their plans. “The right preparation enables inheritors to better evaluate their financial options, reducing the risk of wasteful decisions and misspent inheritances.”

Many people are very uncomfortable talking about money, even with children, but 49% of single parents in the study said they discussed all the details with their children. By comparison, only 40% of nuclear families and 34% of blended families said they did so.

Fifty-one percent of nuclear families said they relied on family members to guide their children on wealth matters, while 30% looked to private bankers or financial advisors for more structured financial learning.

Single parents again stood out, with 64% saying structured financial education was effective in building their financial knowledge — recognition of the benefits of supplementing informal learning with more formal education, according to RBC Wealth Management.

“Families need preparation and training — otherwise the younger inheritors become afraid to use the money,” O’Leary said. “But if they receive the right education, they should feel confident to be actively involved.”

Nearly three-quarters of blended families in the survey said they intended to share family assets equally among all their beneficiaries, including biological children, stepchildren and adopted children. As a result, only 15% anticipated conflict among inheritors.

The research, conducted last summer in collaboration with Scorpio Partnership, included responses from 1,770 nuclear families, 219 single parents and 274 blended families from the U.S., Canada and the U.K.

In May, RBC Wealth Management released a study on women and wealth transfer.

Other Findings

Fifty-six percent of blended families surveyed said they intended to pass on their entire legacy to the next generation only upon illness or death.

Only 31% said they would start gifting some of their wealth to inheritors gradually during their lifetimes.

Asked to assess their confidence in their financial knowledge, single parents rated themselves an average of 6.7 out of 10, the highest of any family type surveyed.

When asked which financial topics were most important to teach the next generation, most families said budgeting, and placed less emphasis on investment strategy and portfolio management.

— Check out Heads of Wealthy Families Hold Off Disclosing Inheritance: Wilmington Trust on ThinkAdvisor.