Two-thirds of the 57 people polled by Wilmington Trust, a bank founded by the du Pont family in the early 20th century and now owned by M&T Bank, said they were "apprehensive about sharing inheritance details." All participants had a net worth of more than $20 million, and only a tenth of them said they had given complete information about inheritance to their heirs — apparently for fear of dampening their work ethic.
Their rationale did not seem unreasonable, at least on the face of it. But they were also concerned with heirs being too young to grasp what would come to them — and with their children deciding to pause their lives as they waited for wealth that might not appear.
To be fair, talking about money with anyone is a famously difficult task. Old money, historically, has been stereotyped as having a Brahmin disdain for such a gauche topic. And then there is the secrecy shrouding what people earn, particularly among colleagues.
But the scale of wealth that some children stand to inherit is life changing. Not talking about it borders on parental negligence.
And yet, there is reticence, even though children — and their friends — can go online and determine the value of their family's homes, cars and vacation destinations.
"Of course your kids know how much money you have," said Lee Miller, regional director of the New York office for Glenmede Trust, which caters to the wealthy. "Parents are willfully disbelieving that their children are not connecting all the dots."
Bill LaFond, president of the family wealth division at Wilmington Trust, is more sympathetic to the challenges families face. "I don't view apprehension as they don't want to have those conversations," he said. "In many ways, they're appropriately cautious. Heirs know there's money. But once you have that conversation and disclose how much money is there, it's an irrevocable conversation."
Joel Treisman, a family wealth coach who leads a monthly group for Tiger 21, an investment club for people with more than $10 million, said he had been left to surmise his family's wealth on his own. He is a descendant of the Cullman family, whose wealth came from Philip Morris tobacco, and also the Lehman banking family.
"Despite a Stanford degree and a Yale M.B.A. with all these financial management courses, I was totally unprepared to be an inheritor — and that was in my 40s," Mr. Treisman said. "There was no family preparation. It was delegated to the family trust-and-estate lawyer to send me a letter on my 21st birthday to talk to me about wealth that was going to revert to me outright."
Given the size of the home of his grandfather, Joseph Cullman III, he knew there was wealth. But he said neither his grandparents nor parents discussed what it meant.