Inheriting money would seem like one of life’s unabashed blessings: someone gives you a lump sum just for being you. For the rest of us, inheritors seem like a democracy’s version of royalty: born into a world of privilege we would love to know. Yet the inheritors I spoke to said they were ill equipped to handle the windfall and found that it quickly made them feel separate from their peers.
I have written recently about very wealthy people taking advantage of the $5.12 million gift tax exemption to give their heirs money now and save on estate taxes later. But what makes the issue of inheritance broader is the amount of money that is expected to change hands at different levels of wealth.
Accenture reported in June that baby boomers will leave $30 trillion to their children in the next 30 to 40 years. (This is on top of the nearly $12 trillion that MetLife predicted in 2010 that boomers would receive from their parents.)
Regardless of the amount, the decisions surrounding bequests are routinely made to maximize tax benefits but often without any input from the people who will inherit the money. “I ask any dad, ‘Do the kids know how much money you have?’ ” said Roy Williams, president of the Williams Group, which consults with families on transferring wealth. “Dad turns white and says, ‘Are you kidding?’ ”
Mr. Williams has outlined a plan to transfer wealth in the book he wrote with Vic Preisser, “Preparing Heirs: Five Steps to a Successful Transition of Family Wealth and Values” (Robert Reed Publishers, 2003). But he said it boiled down to parents’ talking openly about the money.
“When you’re looking at it from a broader, more holistic perspective, you can say what are we trying to accomplish,” he said. “If you don’t define it as money and things but as our values, that’s a huge, huge opportunity.”
Ms. Sobel, who works for the nonprofit Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice, said she wished she had had a better sense of the size of her wealth earlier in her life. She found out all at once when her grandfather died and her mother was put in charge of the family affairs. She was a junior in college, and her mother flew out from New York to discuss the inheritance.
“She took me to meet with the trustee of my trust,” Ms. Sobel said. “He handed me a totally incomprehensible stack of documents, which I never referred to. A couple of months later we hired a financial adviser.”
At least her mother talked to her in person. Jason Franklin, now 32, said he received a call from his grandfather’s secretary asking if he wanted to serve on the board of the family foundation. He was 21 at the time, and up until that point, he said he thought his parents were just affluent professionals like his friends’ parents. The invitation prompted questions.
“If your family has enough money to create a family foundation, that means you have to ask about issues of wealth,” said Mr. Franklin, who works for a philanthropic consultancy. “It caused me to really pause. The reaction I was getting from my friends — it was isolating and confusing.”
This reaction is pretty common. Coventry Edwards-Pitt, chief wealth advisory officer at Ballentine Partners, said many of her clients did not talk about money with their children for fear that it would rob them of motivation, but silence about something so obvious leaves them trying to figure it out on their own.
She said parents did not necessarily need to talk about numbers but should ask their children for their thoughts about the family’s money.
“Parents often think, oh, we’re going to be embarking on this sophisticated wealth transfer strategy so maybe we should talk to them about investments and assets,” she said. “When you ask the kids what they want to talk about, they say, ‘Does this affect me now, or is this money I’m going to inherit when I’m 50?’ ”
This was similar to how Ms. Sobel felt. “I didn’t want to meet with people who were talking about investments,” she said. “I was a gender studies major. I had a new girlfriend. I was doing activist work. This was something that had never been in my day to day, and I wanted to know why I had to prioritize it.”
What she wished was that her parents had talked to her more openly about how different their life was from everyone else’s — something that became apparent when she left Manhattan and landed at the University of Chicago.
“My mom didn’t feel comfortable talking about money,” she said. That fell to her father, who was a public-school teacher. “He tried to teach me how to fit into the world.”
What heirs should know and when is the question every parent wants answered, Mr. Williams said. “The biblical story about the prodigal son was really about a son who wasn’t prepared,” he said. “It’s the same problem today.”
The better question parents should ask themselves, he said, is what they want to accomplish with the money. Waiting may result in a higher tax bill but could avoid generations of family discord.