The Biggest Problem for Wealthy Families

I recently visited a house that was once the largest private residence in the country: the “Biltmore” mansion. It was built by the grandson of the founder, “Commodore” Cornelius Vanderbilt, who built the original family fortune. His son doubled the fortune which, in today’s dollars would be worth $300 billion, making the family one of the ten richest in human history. But the heirs managed to run through this immense wealth.

Biltmore

Within just 30 years of the death of the Commodore no member of the Vanderbilt family was among the richest in the US. And 48 years after his death, one of his grandchildren is said to have died penniless.

In less than a single generation the surviving Vanderbilts had spent the majority of their family wealth!

No one today is that wealthy, but there is a lesson here for those who have accumulated multimillion dollar fortunes. While families today will openly discuss formerly taboo subjects like same-sex marriage and drug use, talking about family wealth seems to be harder to discuss.

Most wealthy people have wills and trusts but a substantial number of children have no idea of how much money their parents have. I have experienced this frequently in our practice when we disclose to heirs how much money they are actually inheriting. This applies not just to the wealthy but also the moderately “comfortable.”

According to a recent study, approximately 80% to 90% of families who have inheritable wealth have an up-to-date will. Only about half have discussed their inheritance with their children.

The reasons why parents don’t talk about money with their children range from not thinking it’s important, don’t want children to feel entitled, or they just don’t talk about money.

The problem is that the receipt of sudden wealth can have a deleterious affect on people. Too often a family fortune that has been created with great effort is squandered by people who have no idea that their inheritance is finite.

What can be done? Creating an environment and venue where family wealth can be discussed can be facilitated by a family’s financial advisor, ideally a Registered Investment Advisor – rather than a broker – who has the best interest of the family at heart.

If you need someone who can help you talk about money with your heirs, give us a call. We’ll be happy to help.

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