How to Avoid the Complications of Wealth Transfer
Help your descendants help themselves by learning about these common wealth transfer problems.
Money can make even the closest family relationships turn ugly. Anticipating the emotional issues attached to wealth transfer can help you avoid them altogether or deal with them more efficiently if they do arise.
Sudden wealth syndrome
Coming into a large amount of money unexpectedly seems great from an outside perspective. However, if an heir receives this money without being adequately prepared for the responsibilities that come with it, he or she can experience something similar to what lottery winners often feel. This instant gratification is often called “sudden wealth syndrome.” Because the heir did not have to work to gain the money and/or may not have talked with his or her predecessor about the work that went into earning the money, it may result in a lack of motivation. The person may find it hard to develop skills like delayed gratification and thrift. Therefore, an heir is more likely to spend the windfall and blow through most of the inheritance. Heirs in this situation often experience frustration, feelings of failure or a false sense of entitlement. They may avoid accountability or withdraw from others, sometimes even developing serious social disorders.
How to fix it
The most important thing to remember to avoid giving your children sudden wealth syndrome is to take the time to communicate to your family the values that allowed you to accumulate your wealth. Children who understand and empathize with the struggle that their parents may have gone through to attain their wealth will feel more of an emotional attachment to this money and will be less likely to spend it all at once. If you feel that your children are not emotionally ready to handle this wealth, consider setting up trusts or placing an age restriction on when your future heirs can inherit their money. This sets up a longer timeline and gives the next generation time to mature.
A leadership void can occur when a family business owner dies suddenly before training the next generation. If it’s not clear who should step up to take responsibility of the business, power struggles can occur among the remaining heirs. Even if financial wealth or the entire business isn’t lost, the vision for the business often is.
How to fix it
If a business is among your assets, one of the first things your wealth transfer plan should establish is how that business will function after you are gone. Will your family continue to run the business, or will it pass through sale to a third party? If you choose to keep it within the family, you will want to set specific role designations for your future heirs. It’s important to remember that “fair” is not always “equal.” For example, if you have two children, one who has worked alongside you in the business for years and understands your business plan and ethics, and one who has shown no interest in the business and knows little about your business practices, you may not want to split the business equally between these children. When making these choices, it’s important to discuss your rationale with your family ahead of time so that your future heirs understand why they are placed in their roles and what is expected of them in those roles.
Difficult trustee-beneficiary relationships can occur when families adhere to the “nothing revealed until death” principle of estate planning. If trustees and beneficiaries are not kept in the loop during the planning process, the beneficiaries suddenly find themselves inheriting an unexpected amount of wealth at an already emotional time in their lives. If they haven’t talked to the grantor about the idea of a trust before the grantor’s death, they can feel as though the trustee is standing between them and what they are “rightfully entitled” to.
How to fix it
It’s important to consider who you name as trustee and why. For example, it can be common practice to name a child as a trustee. However, what if you die before your spouse and your spouse then has to ask your son or daughter for principal distributions from a trust? This can create an uncomfortable family situation. It’s important to consider the possible ramifications of who you name as trustee and whether or not they will be able to handle the difficult decisions left to them. Depending on your family situation, it may be best to name a trustee who is impartial to family dynamics.
Depending on how specific you are in your wealth transfer, there may be certain items that are “up for grabs” in your estate. These items may have emotional value to one of your descendants, or may be culturally significant, such as prominent works of art. This can lead to arguments among family members over who gets to keep what, especially amongst siblings or descendants who may already be prone to fighting.
How to fix it
Depending on the personalities within your family, it might be wise to avoid leaving property division decisions to your descendants. You have the option to try to be as specific as possible in your estate planning documents, or you can name an impartial executor to divvy up your property. If you do choose to leave property division to yourself, make sure you are open and honest with your future heirs about how and why you chose to leave certain things to certain people. Also, you should avoid promising the same piece to more than one person—a tactic that some people use to try to avoid conflict in the moment. Unfortunately, this usually leads to enlarged conflict later on.
Communication is key
Even if you set up a beautifully planned wealth transfer with a variety of financial strategies and your financial planner executes it perfectly , it still has the potential to fail if you don’t have your future heirs on board. Beyond preserving your wealth, communicating money values and generational wealth transfer plans in the most open way possible can also help your children to become more knowledgeable and responsible for their finances.
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