The Rich Are Tight-Lipped On Family Wealth Decisions

For the wealthy, decisions about passing on assets—for instance, by gifting to family and charities, by dividing assets among heirs and establishing trust provisions or limitations—rank as the most important and difficult to make when compared to decisions about saving, investing, spending and other day-to-day finances, according to a Bank of America study.

In fact, the study found that more than two-thirds (64%) of the rich have never talked with family members about how or why they intend to pass on their assets. While 48% plan to communicate this information eventually, or assume family members already know, 10% vow never to divulge details of their estate plan, primarily because they consider it personal and no one else’s business.
The report, part of an ongoing series of white papers on wealth sustainability from the Merrill Center for Family Wealth, included more than 650 high-net-worth people across the country. It was 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, said Andy Sieg, president of Merrill Lynch Wealth Management.

Respondents were asked how different types of financial decisions are made and communicated within their families. The findings were published in a report titled, “How Do Families Make Effective Wealth Decisions?”

The report found that 72% of wealth holders have not discussed their philanthropic commitments, and just 33% have informed their family of lifetime gifts already made or committed to, such as assets held in a trust or the funding of education, a down payment on a first house or some other purpose.

“Decisions about family money have the potential to change lives, yet the outcome depends on how well the purpose and reasoning behind those decisions are understood, and too often that is left unsaid,” said Stacy Allred, head of the Merrill Center for Family Wealth, in a statement. “Misunderstanding can lead to family conflicts, resentment and other unintended consequences, including the misuse or loss of family wealth.”

On distributing wealth, the research shows that 69% said they would do so equally, while others based their allocations on need and individual contributions. The report noted that younger respondents and males were most likely to focus on equality.

When asked what they consider to be the most important idea to communicate when discussing wealth with family, the top response was being a good steward and handling family money wisely. Respondents also indicated that giving to others and charities also should be a part of the discussion.

Half of the survey participants indicated they have very complex financial lives, and the other half said their financial lives are average to simple. At the same time, 41% said they prefer to go it alone when it comes to managing their finances.

The report found that 65% of respondents don’t have a formal structure to discuss wealth, such as a family advisor, family council or committee or a family succession plan.
As for family meetings, those are also rare. Sixty-one percent of the rich said they never have formal meetings to discuss their finances.

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