Whether it's money you were banking on or a pleasant surprise, an inheritance is a gift that should not be frittered away.
Indeed, beneficiaries to an estate should be no more frivolous with found money than they are with their regular income, said Susan Bradley, a former financial planner and founder of the Sudden Money Institute in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.
"People often think that if they had an inheritance they'd buy a Bentley or an Audi sports car, but just because you've always dreamed of doing that doesn't mean you should," she said. "Don't think of it as free money that you can blow."
Click ahead to see several ways you can make the most of an inheritance.
—By Shelly K. Schwartz, Special to CNBC.com
Posted on 19 Nov. 2013
Start with a plan, Bradley said, and be prepared for financial challenges you didn't expect.
Some bequests, for example, create friction in a family if someone fails to include a spouse in decision-making about how the inherited money should be used.
Others might feel a disconnect with those dollars if they lead a different lifestyle than their benefactor. Or, they may start underperforming at work because they assume they'll quit their job when their family's estate gets passed along.
"They start marking their time, but what are they going to do when it's delayed or less than expected?" said Bradley, noting an inheritance may take the form of less liquid assets like real estate, an art collection or an ownership stake in a business.
"That money is emotionally charged. Expectations can be really big—your own, your family's and even the expectations of the person who left you the money," she said.
To honor the legacy of your loved one, she added, it's your responsibility to use that money wisely.
Like winning the lottery, the best strategy after inheriting wealth is to just sit tight. Don't quit your job, buy a boat, or start doling out money to friends and family who come out of the woodwork.
"Create a decision-free zone," said Bradley. "Hold back from knee-jerk decisions, which is when you really end up regretting your choices."
Give yourself six months to a year to put some perspective into your planning and interview financial advisors to find a professional whose philosophy matches your own.
"Work with an advisor and test out the limits of that money," said Bradley. "Is it enough to retire on? If you bought a house and invested the rest, what difference will that money make in your life? What if you share some with your kids? How much would be left for you?"
The one exception to the sit-tight rule is to immediately pay off debt that could result in penalties, bankruptcy or foreclosure, said Bradley. Anything short of that should wait for a more comprehensive financial plan.
For those who inherit significant wealth, it's also important to define what having money means, said Stacy Allred, a wealth strategist with Merrill Lynch Private Banking and Investment Group.
Identify your priorities for saving, spending, investing and sharing. "You need to integrate your values into your financial plan," she said, noting those priorities are different for every family.
If you're married, and the money inherited belongs to you, it's also important to articulate your plan for, well, communicating.
Perhaps you intend to manage that money on your own, without input from your spouse or kids. Or, you may consider it to be a joint asset and welcome input from your family. Whatever you choose, though, be sure that expectations are clear.
"If there's one inheritor, that person needs to be explicit about their choice to either communicate or not communicate about the money," said Michael Liersch, director of behavioral finance for Merrill Lynch Wealth Management. "Be intentional. Where we see mistakes is when things are not articulated, which leads to potential conflict."
A values statement that defines your personal goals for that money can help ensure your financial decisions remain consistent. Just remember, Liersch said, it's not etched in stone. "Life circumstances change and perspectives change so the idea is to allow yourself to revisit that documentation and articulate new view points as needed," he said.
Bradley adds that future heirs should also be mindful about making well-intentioned, but reckless commitments for that money before they even get it.
"You might tell your kids to go ahead and commit to the student loans and you'll pay it off when you get your inheritance, but you don't usually know how much it will be or when you're going to get it," Bradley said. "Many times there are some real commitments made ahead of time so that money is mentally spent by the time you get it."
You'll also want to invest part of your inheritance to offset the effects of inflation, regardless of your age. Your time horizon, risk tolerance and financial goals will ultimately dictate your strategy, which will either seek to provide capital appreciation or wealth preservation.
"You have to start by articulating the goals you have for your lifestyle, family and philanthropy and that's really going to determine everything from your asset allocation to product election," Liersch said. "It varies dramatically for every individual, but the key is to determine what's essential and what's discretionary."
Many who inherit wealth at a young age express concern that they not be the person in the family line to lose the money, Liersch said.
"They want to be a good steward of that wealth so that determines the purpose and time horizon for those dollars," he said. "It also helps determine a sustainable spending rate, which is why articulating goals makes a difference."
A wealth manager or financial advisor can help you implement a plan that meets your needs.
High-interest credit card debt seems the obvious first place to apply extra money, but Bradley cautions beneficiaries to consider their money management skills first.
"If someone has a history of paying off their credit card and then running it back up again, it's not going to help them long-term to pay off their cards," she said.
Consider instead creating an emergency fund from which to dip when unexpected bills crop up (think medical care or a new transmission).
Better yet, funnel that money into a tax-advantaged retirement account with early withdrawal penalties, like an IRA or 401(k), to put some space and accessibility between you and the money.
"If you know you have regrettable money habits you want to work around that," said Bradley, noting a life insurance annuity that provides guaranteed income during retirement is also an option.
It's not all about return on investment, of course. Give yourself permission to splurge on something meaningful to you, be it an all-expenses-paid African safari for your family or oil painting classes at the local art studio.
"We recommend that people do set aside some money to just enjoy," Liersch said. "There's a lot of research in behavioral finance that shows when you restrict yourself too much you end up overdoing it later." That's how bad decisions are born. "Do something you've always wanted to do and once you've had that experience, you can look at the rest of the money in a much different way," said Liersch.
It's awkward to be sure, but if you know your parents or grandparents are planning to leave you their estate, or part of it, and they're unwilling to talk about their financial affairs, you can at least initiate dialogue with them in the areas of financial education, Bradley said.
"Ask if there's something you could be doing now to learn how to manage any future inheritance you may receive," said Bradley, noting now is not the time to start talking numbers. "Their short answer may be, 'I'm not going anywhere anytime soon and you'll get what you get.' To which you can respond, 'Yes, I get that, but how should I prepare?'"
If they're still not ready to have the talk, which is their right, Bradley suggests you leave the ball in their court.
"Just say, 'When you think the time is right I would like to know how to be better prepared to be a good recipient of whatever you choose to leave me. I want to respect it and make sure I'm doing the right thing.'"
The children of wealthier families may also be able to begin financial discussions with their elders (and future benefactors) in the area of philanthropy, said Liersch.
"Investment ideas and wealth within a context of giving is a very neutral place to start communicating," he said. "If your family has a philanthropic orientation or foundation, ask to be a part of that, and then you can start sharing information about perspectives ranging from risk to overarching views about how you can use that money as a tool."
That opens the door, too, to ask how they became so successful and what principals guided them along the way.
An inheritance can be either highly divisive or liberating depending on how you manage it. Deliberate decision-making and effective communication can not only prevent hurt feelings among your family members, but also ensure the financial plan you put in motion honors your benefactor while reflecting your own unique goals and values.