I am shocked at how many of our clients do not have a working knowledge of the financial circumstances and legacy goals of their parents. Nor have many of my clients shared any of their wealth plans with their adult children. Sure, many of our clients hold regular family social gatherings, meet for the holidays or have reunions and even participate in family business partnership meetings, but that is where it ends.
I propose one way to remedy this information void is to hold formally structured family meetings. In addition to opening lines of communications between generations these meetings can be a valuable and an enlightening exercise that will help build strong family values and legacies. The first priority is to share the financial numbers and wealth plan across generations so there are no surprises. Do your parents need you to help them pay their bills when they turn 90, are they planning on bouncing their last check or are they leaving you a huge inheritance that you will share with the IRS when they are gone? These conversations should take place now—not when it is too late to do anything about it. Once the basic finances are shared the other benefits of family meetings can be varied and may include open interfamily communication, develop a sense of family history, share values and life lessons, do legacy planning, give mutual support and even develop a family identity. Whether family members were alive during World War II, are Baby Boomers, Generation X or Generation Y, everyone can contribute and reap significant benefits from participating in regular family meetings.
It not all about the numbers as the format for the meeting can be as simple as telling family stories. Today it is not unusual to have three or even four generations alive in a family so take advantage of the matriarch or patriarch’s ability to share the family’s history and be the link to past generations. Why does the family live where they do and from where did it originate? What were the educational backgrounds and careers of past generations and how did they succeed or fail financially? Who was the black sheep of the family and what was their story? If you have a family member that is into genealogy the internet (ancestry.com, familysearch.org, genealogy.com) offers the resources to record your family tree to add to the family history and discussion.
In his book “Wealth In Families”, Charles W. Collier, the Senior Philanthropic Adviser at Harvard University identifies four types of capital that every family has as part of their assets: “Human Capital” which refers to who the individual family members are, what they do or have the potential to accomplish, “Intellectual Capital” meaning how family member learn and teach each other, “Social Capital“ focusing on how family members engage with society at large and what mark if any they want to leave upon the world and finally “Financial Capital” or the property of the family. His premise is families that enhance their human, intellectual and social capital have a better chance at growing great human beings, and continuing as a cohesive group that enjoys meeting, working and being together for more than one generation.
The agenda for a family meeting could include conversation on any of the four types of family capital. Discussion should stress supporting each family member’s individual pursuit of happiness. Life transitions is a great starting place by addressing births, deaths, marriages, divorces, relocations, children’s college choices, retirement, succession planning for family businesses, legacy planning and philanthropy. Ask and answer questions that shape the family identity. What challenges have family members overcome they are most proud of? What family values are important for future generations to carry with them? How should the family view whatever level of financial wealth they have achieved and what are the priorities for it use?
It your family, so start talking with each other now.