The Perspective Blog
Estate Planning

How Do you Start a Family Conversation About Financial Inheritance?

James Bryan

The thought of discussing inheritances with family members can be emotional and uncomfortable if not approached in the right way.

The late Charles Collier was the former senior philanthropic adviser at Harvard University, where he served for 25 years. He also held positions at Brown, Andover, Dartmouth, and Princeton. He has worked with hundreds of individuals and families to shape their philanthropy, helping them make tax-wise gift decisions and advising them on family relationships surrounding financial wealth.

Charles contributed an excellent chapter to Tom McCullough and Keith Whitaker’s book, Wealth of Wisdom: The Top 50 Questions Wealthy Families Ask, focused on helping families start a conversation about financial inheritance.

To get a better understanding of how to begin this process, he suggests several key questions to help illuminate the important issues:

Answering these questions before discussing or implementing estate planning strategies can provide a helpful framework upon which to base the next steps.

Because of his belief that the true wealth of families is not really financial, Charles suggests that you start by discussing the principles that will guide your decisions. He recommends a three-part process.

Once you have established your basic principles together, the second step is the conversations with your beneficiaries. Whether with all beneficiaries at once, or one at a time is a family specific choice. In some instances, only one conversation is needed. Other times, a series of conversations over a number of years is the best approach. There is no one size fits all approach.

When beginning a conversation with beneficiaries, these general questions can be helpful, but the family conversation will be very specific to the family:

The third part of the conversation is a reflection on the principles that guided the initial decisions, the general nature of the estate plan and the amounts that your children will receive. Does the plan mirror the same principles set out as the framework for the inheritance at the beginning of the process? Based on the conversations with beneficiaries, should any of their suggestions be integrated?

Charles’ primary message is: "Think carefully about the purpose of the financial inheritance. Engage all your children in conversations about your financial wealth and their inheritances." While this task can seem daunting, it can be an opportunity for the family to come together to connect and educate one another. For further details on this topic, I suggest reading or listening to the podcast Wealth of Wisdom chapter 24 "How Do you Start a Family Conversation About Financial Inheritance?"


James Bryan

James is a member of the family office advisory group at Northwood and works with families in the areas of financial planning, taxation, and investment management.

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