How much capital does your family have? Is there enough to secure a stable and happy future for you and your children, or even your children’s children?
When the topic is one of financial capital, these are likely familiar questions to anyone dealing with wealth transfer concerns. But what many families often fail to see is the opportunity to build "relationship capital" through engaging conversations—a more intangible but equally important step to incorporate when you are establishing your family’s wealth planning goals.
Defining relationship capital
I have spent my career working with wealthy families to develop strategies for moving their assets over the course of time. Traditionally, the word “assets” is used to refer to tangible items with monetary value—businesses, possessions, and liquid wealth—that are most commonly the focus of estate planning and wealth transfer conversations. But assets are also composed of intangible things, such as relationships, legacy values, and plans for the future, and often require a long time (or even a lifetime) to pass down to loved ones.
In my work, I define relationship capital as “the relational reserve of goodwill that allows families to talk about anything”: “reserve,” because it must be built up over time to be there when needed, and “goodwill” to capture the richness and complexity that is required to create an open dialogue. Goodwill encompasses trust, loyalty, positive beliefs, benefit of the doubt, honesty, transparency, safety, grace, forgiveness, a commitment to communicate, and much more. I believe each of these individual components must be a focus of relationship-building within a family.
Hope is not a method
My passion is to help families conduct conversations and develop relationship skills that allow them to plan their wealth transfer and have healthier, more intimate family relationships as a result of the process. Wow! Exciting, right? Not only can you successfully transition your financial assets, but you can actually use the process to create a stronger family and build relationship capital.
If you want to strengthen your family, you can’t just “hope” it will happen. In fact, the natural tendency in most families is to avoid communicating about wealth and transition of assets, and for senior generation family members to do their planning behind a cloak of secrecy and relationship isolation.
So, is there a way to defy this family tendency? I believe there is if you follow the four guiding principles outlined below, each illustrated with a hypothetical example based on real life scenarios.
Guiding Principle No. 1: ‘Normalize’ wealth and planning
When family topics become supercharged, hidden, or fear-based, they can go unaddressed, and thus create emotional distance, resentment, and a lack of individual and family integration. Take the example of a family in which the parents were first-generation, entrepreneurial wealth creators. Because growing up wealthy wasn’t normal to them, they did not know how to make it seem normal to their children, so they literally masked their total assets by covering all but the signature line on their children's tax documents each year.
But by treating their offspring like immature children well into their twenties, the parents created some deep resentment with their offspring. When they finally agreed to disclose their wealth, they had their attorney handle the conversation, instead of using it as an opportunity to create intimacy and build relationship capital with their kids. The subsequent fallout with their children required a family intervention to deal with their history of wealth secrecy.
This is why it’s so important to normalize the discussion of wealth by talking early and often about money. This can be done by holding discussions when your children are young about investing and saving, having proper work ethics, how to provide for family members in the future, or how to help others in need.
Guiding Principle No. 2: Have the right people talking about the right things, at the right time, in the right way
Conversely, most communication conflict comes when we have the wrong people talking about the wrong things, at the wrong time, in the wrong way—including no one talking about anything.
This is what happened when a senior generation family member called his wife and four children together for dinner in order to make an "announcement." His objective was to inspire the next generation to be active philanthropists but, instead, his surprise declaration regarding his plans to distribute his fortune had the opposite effect, causing the family to criticize his decision and gang up on him.
If he had met with each member individually and fostered a two-way dialogue and feedback before bringing everyone together for a thoughtful discussion, he would likely have achieved his goal. Instead, he got what he most feared: an evening that ended in fractured family relations, and a lost opportunity to inspire his children about his philanthropic vision.
A better approach may be to empower your family. First, let everyone know that they have a role in the wealth discussion and planning process (an age-appropriate role, of course). Second, define the different roles people have, determine what the content of the different conversations should be, decide when and how different people will be involved, and declare what effective family communication looks like. I believe this maxim should be a lifetime principle for families, but it also happens to work well in helping to direct the wealth-and-planning conversation.
Guiding Principle No. 3: Follow the “voice not vote” rule
When I suggest that all family members should have a role in the planning process, it can create fear in older family members, who think I am saying that everyone gets a vote. In fact, I don’t believe families are a democracy (sorry, kids). I think decision control should be defined by the person who owns the assets.
And I believe the general rule should be this: The more impact a decision has on them, the more voice you should give them. Even at a young age, giving a voice to children builds self-respect, teaches them how to ask questions and express opinions, and gives them a sense of destiny and influence over their future.
A classic example of a decision made without the "voice not vote" principle is one pertaining to a senior-generation business owner and father who made asset distribution decisions involving his children, based only on assumptions. While living, he chose to give his business to the one son he assumed had a vested interest. He then gave a large amount of cash to a second son he assumed had no interest in the business, and gave other possessions and property to his daughters.
Because this was done with no prior family conversation, his children had no "voice" and, therefore, their individual wishes were not apparent. Thankfully, a happy ending was achieved after he was encouraged to have an open conversation about his decisions. He then learned that one of the daughters was very interested in working in the family business, and all four children preferred to be shareholders and stay connected to the legacy.
In the end, the father’s estate planning was realigned to accommodate the voices of his children, resulting in a unified family vision.
Guiding Principle No. 4: Build on wish, not fear
Think about the incredible tension between "wish" and "fear" when it comes to family nurturing. People typically have a strong innate family wish around relationships, dreams, lifetime goals, and the family legacy. And yet, so many of our actions and decisions within our families are driven by fear, which, ironically, can destroy the wish.
Take parenting, for example. Many of us “wish” for our children to be independent, but our “fears” keep us from letting them spread their wings and making their own decisions. We wish for them to have a strong voice in life, but our fear of losing control keeps us from giving them a voice with us. We wish for them to have financial security from our efforts, but our fear that they may become spoiled and entitled keep us from engaging them in conversations around wealth and planning for the future.
In order to build relationship capital, families must embrace the wish over the fear. And in my experience, the wish is always under the surface as the inverse of the expressed fear. Often, when I am talking with families and I hear their fears coming through, I stop the conversation and ask, “Where’s the wish?” With some reflective coaching they can reengage with the wish and discuss the behaviors that are associated with the wish versus the fear. In your wealth and transition planning process, I suggest embracing the principle of seeking the wish.
Relationship capital is an outcome
I believe that following the four guiding principles above can slowly help to build a reserve of goodwill in a family. And what is the ultimate goal of developing such a robust portfolio of relationship capital? To be able to talk about anything! This might sound idealistic, but when there is relationship capital in play, communication capabilities are much more extensive, allowing the “anything” to include the full range of wealth planning topics and strategies, unfettered by constrained family dynamics.
When your family brings relationship capital to the table in estate planning and asset transfer discussions with a financial adviser, I believe you may have a greater opportunity to leave a legacy of both monetary and emotional wealth to your loved ones.
- For more guidance on estate planning, visit Fidelity’s Trust & Estates