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Wealth Holders Don’t Discuss Money With Their Heirs

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Some two-thirds of wealth holders in a new study from Merrill Private Wealth Management reported that they had never talked with family members about how or why they intended to pass on their assets.

Nearly half said they planned to do so at some point, or assumed family members already knew their plans.

But 10% of study participants were adamant about not divulging details of their estate plan, mainly because they considered the information personal and no one else’s business.

The study examined whether that was a good decision.

“This research is designed to help families make better decisions and secure the promise of wealth, including the impact it can have within and beyond one’s family and lifetime,” Andy Sieg, Merrill Lynch Wealth Management’s president, said in a statement.

Phoenix Marketing International conducted an online survey in 2018 among 656 high-net-worth and ultra-high net worth adults with at least $3 million in investable assets, not including the value of their primary residence.

The survey found that compared with decisions about saving, investing, spending and other day-to-day finances, those concerning family money ranked as the most important and hardest to make. Among these were gifting to family and charities, dividing assets among heirs and establishing trust provisions or limitations.

Only 33% of survey respondents said they had informed their family of lifetime gifts already made or committed to, such as assets held in a trust, funding of education or a down payment on a first house.

Seventy-two said they had not informed family about their philanthropic commitments.

Asked what was the most important idea to communicate to family members when discussing wealth, respondents’ top response was to be a good steward and handle family money wisely.

However, only 46% said they had talked with heirs about fundamental family values and operating principles.

According to the survey, 69% of wealth holders said they planned to divide their assets equally among heirs. The rest said specific criteria, such as merit for individual contributions or need, would dictate allocation decisions.

Twenty-two percent of respondents planned to openly share details of their estate plan with the whole family, while 17% said they would share information only as it applied to each person.

Making Family Wealth Decisions 

The study found that six in 10 families lacked a formal structure or rigorous process to ensure family wealth decisions are made and communicated effectively.

A majority of respondents said wealth decisions in their family were typically made in an autocratic and top-down manner, with one person making decisions with little or no input from anyone else.

Seventeen percent said their families made financial decisions democratically with collective input or representation of all members.

According to the study, limited collaboration on family wealth decisions may reflect the high degree of confidence most people have in their own financial decision-making.

Seventy-nine percent of men in the survey and 68% of the women reported complete confidence in their financial decisions.

However, only 56% of respondents said their decisions always turned out well. The rest reported mixed results, including 21% who said all their decisions had turned out badly or they had delayed making decisions because they were unsure of the outcome.

“The best form of financial parenting and a big part of improving the outcome of decisions involves putting more care into the decision-making process itself,” added Matthew Wesley, a director at Merrill Center for Family Wealth, said in the statement.

“Family wealth decisions can be complicated by family dynamics, a long-time horizon and unrecognized biases that call for a deliberate and disciplined approach.”

Wesley and a colleague, Valerie Galinskaya, recently discussed how a Bank of America think tank is teaming up with Merrill advisors to help wealthy clients figure out what to do with their assets.