(This provocative article is adapted from the new book, Entitlemania, by Richard Watts.)
Somewhere in our DNA as parents, we believe it is an act of love, generosity, or for some, contrition, to leave our children an inheritance after we die. And the more money we leave, we think, the better! But despite the wisdom and warnings of historical philosophy, religious texts and psychology, we refuse to heed the whispers and acquiesce to our irrefutable belief that our children will both benefit from, and appreciate our gift.
Beware . . . For everything you give your child, you take something away.
Perhaps we need to change the question we ask ourselves from 'How much is too much?' to 'How little is too little?'
Yet parents often adjust their retirement budget for food, shelter, travel and recreation so they can “leave a little something” to their children. And many, modestly surviving on Social Security, even feel a twinge of guilt if they exit the planet saddling their children with funeral and burial expenses.
How Inheritances Can Cause Permanent Damage to Families
How would you react if I told you that your children would never speak to each other again because you left your three kids your house? What if the son you designated as your executor or trustee seized control of your assets and was sued by his brothers and sisters? What if the family business you built during your life dismantles the family after you depart?
But you say, “No! Not my family!” To the contrary. In my 35years of managing wealthy families every day, the incident of permanent damage occurring to a family is most of the time.
And just in case you believe your kids are going to be appreciative of the money you leave, it takes about three days of grieving for your children to consider your inheritance all theirs. Remembering that dear old Dad and Mom provided them a unique opportunity of financial security lasts about as much time as it takes the bank to clear the inheritance check.
Carnegie, Buffett, Gates and You
One of America’s richest men, Andrew Carnegie, wrote an essay in 1889 entitled The Gospel of Wealth and lamented: “I would as soon leave my son a curse as the almighty dollar.” Modern-day financial icons, Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett, similarly plan to leave relatively small portions of their massive estates to their children, choosing to promote their kids’ long-term emotional well-being instead of feeding their materialistic cravings.
Money is supposed to provide a security blanket, not a blank check. Your lifelong achievement in building a nest egg is like a dam being built across a stream. For you, a lake of financial security forms behind the dam. Downstream, your kids often nest, staying close enough to the stream to take advantage of the flow you permit from the lake. Too often, inheritance of any size is like a break in the dam. The kids downstream have no sense of controlling the flood, and all can be swept away.
So how do we fix this? And how should we think about what we leave our kids?
Changing the Question We Ask Ourselves
Perhaps we need to change the question we ask ourselves from “How much is too much?” to “How little is too little?”
Do your kids expect you to hand over the loot? If they do, try this: Sit down with your children in a family meeting. Tell them Mom and Dad have decided to leave all of their money, excepting the personal belongings, to charity. Or an alternative would be to leave all of your money to a family foundation where the kids are the directors who would designate the money only to charities.
How would they react? If they say, “Great, Mom and Dad, it’s your money to do what you want!” you have probably raised kids that can control the cash. If, however, after the meeting, they secretly convene to discuss what they’ve concluded must be your newly-discovered early-onset dementia, perhaps you ought to rethink your intentions.
Cold Money and Warm Money
One afternoon at my office in Southern California, a family of three adult children in their 40s called for a meeting with their financially-successful parents and me. The oldest spoke on behalf of his siblings and began: “Mom and Dad, there is something called warm money and cold money. Warm money is money you give us with love, while you are alive, and you’re able to witness our appreciation of the gift. Cold money is the money we get, whether you like it or not, after you’re both dead.” There was a brief pause. He continued: “Your children would prefer to have more of the warm money.” The following week, Mom and Dad came to me and asked to revise their estate plan, giving their kids substantially less.
There are two parts to this debate: the process of your disbursing an inheritance and the amount you give for inheritance.
The first is simple. Do not let your kids be the executors and trustees of your will and trust. You will find this is contrary to most estate planning experts’ direction, but they only draft wills and trusts, they rarely deal with the aftermath.
And sell it all! Even the family business! Hard to say that out loud, isn’t it? But you must separate your kids from being involved with your estate upon your death. The best solution is to have an independent party liquidate everything except the personal property, then divide the proceeds by the number of kids you have and give them each a check. Your family will soon realize your actions kept them together.
How Much to Leave
The second question of how much to give your adult children is a little trickier. How affected would your kids be if you left them nothing? Put another way, how dependent are your kids on your financial support? The irony is that the ones who do not need your money will probably be okay and the ones who do will most likely be negatively affected.
A suggestion might be to leave half your estate to your kids and the other half to charities, allowing your kids to designate which ones they would like to choose to give the money. Doing this will leave a valuable life lesson to your kids that will be remembered.
The Colored Stickers Story
As to the question of how to divide your personal property and memorabilia, my friend Mel (a host on 1430 KASI Radio in Ames, Iowa) had the best answer. His father had passed away and when his mother was dying, she asked Mel and his siblings to each choose a different color of sticky paper dots. They were then asked in succession to put their colored sticker on something in the house they’d like to have after their mother passed — furniture, antiques, jewelry, silver and family heirlooms.
Each time it was Mel’s turn, he waived his brothers and sisters on, skipped his turn and continued the conversation with his mother. When all the items in the house were tagged with dots, the kids circled around their mother. Mel’s mom asked: “Mel, don’t you want anything?” He carefully peeled off one yellow sticker from his unused sheet of dots and gently placed it on his mother’s forehead.
Perhaps this is your last act of “tough love.” Don’t turn a blind eye to the reality that even modest amounts of money carelessly given to your children can have unexpected and corrupting results.
Money is like a narcotic; a little more is always welcome and the last amount never quite fills your present need. Give your children enough that they do something, but not so much that they do nothing.
Your legacy, and perhaps theirs, is in your hands.
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