Wealthy Parents Worry Kids Will Squander Inheritances

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Many high-income parents are concerned that by leaving a large inheritance, it can do more harm than good for their loved ones, according to a new survey.

The report, “How Much Should I Give to My Family?” released Thursday by Merrill Lynch’s Private Banking and Investment Group, is based on a survey of 206 high net worth parents with $5 million or more in investable assets about their wealth management plans.

The survey found that a majority (91 percent) of people plan to leave the lion’s share of their wealth to family members, motivated by a desire to positively influence the lives of loved ones. However, the results indicate that many see significant risk in passing on wealth without context, conversation, guidance or accountability. Parents surveyed note that fear of disrupting family harmony and a lack of clarity rank high on the list of reasons not to discuss giving.

Forty-six percent of the high net worth individuals surveyed said they are concerned about giving too much money, and only about half are confident that the distribution of their assets will have the intended impact. The survey found that the greater their assets, the greater the level of concern.

When asked at what point an inheritance or gift is considered too much, 46 percent said “when the money creates a disincentive to achieve one’s full potential.” Twenty-eight percent said it is when the recipient can indulge in a perpetual life of leisure. 

Two-thirds (66 percent) of the survey respondents exhibited at least some degree of concern about the negative impact of gifted assets on a particular individual or group of individuals. 

“Too often, people think only about dollars amounts, not impact, when deciding how much is too much to give,” said Michael Liersch, head of behavioral finance and goals-based development at Merrill Lynch Wealth Management, in a sattement. “There is no silver bullet answer or one-size-fits-all approach to gifting assets. The process of meaningful, intentional giving, whether to family, friends or philanthropy, should be highly personalized. It requires honesty, humility and a willingness to face this all-important topic head on.”

More than half (52 percent) of all respondents and 42 percent of those with more than $10 million in assets plan for virtually all of their remaining assets to be distributed after they are gone, with their wishes outlined in a will or trust and estate plan.

While more than six in 10 (63 percent) of the survey respondents said they have documented or defined plans to pass financial assets to others, only 29 percent have had a conversation with the recipients. Far fewer have articulated their intended purpose via letter (16 percent), a values statement (3 percent) or video (2 percent).

The appropriate amount of money to give and the best model for giving vary depending on the recipient, according to the report. While many wealth creators want to be fair and equitable in the distribution of their assets, their concern about giving too much is often associated with how it might affect a specific person of group of people, such as a child with special needs or a family member struggling with addictions.

One-quarter of respondents said they consider equity and/or fairness the top consideration when deciding how much to distribute assets among their heirs, yet nearly 40 percent say they want to be fair to everyone.

The paper provides a framework for a personalized giving model and five factors of decision-making about how much and to whom to give. In addition, the paper takes an in-depth look at the financial and emotional implications of gifting assets during one’s lifetime or after they are gone.

The report suggests that the idea of giving too much is of particular concern for people who have not clearly identified the purpose of their wealth or defined their values and intent for passing it on.

“Many wealthy families shy away from discussions about wealth, and their avoidance can impede the very real and important process of defining priorities for wealth and giving,” said Stacy Allred, a managing director and wealth strategist in the Merrill Lynch Private Banking and Investment Group and leader of Merrill Lynch’s Center for Family Wealth Dynamics and Governance. “Unfortunately, discussions around wealth tend to occur only at big life junctures, such as an illness or death, when it is often too late to influence the way wealth is distributed, perceptions of the gift by its recipients or how they use it.”

The top three events that trigger a dialogue about wealth transfer are: a health issue (56 percent); death of a family member or friend (43 percent); or an initial discussion with a professional advisor (34 percent).

The primary reasons for not talking with family about giving are: (1) simply not thinking about it, and (2) concern about disrupting family harmony. 

Insight from the research and discussions with clients indicate that there is a higher degree of confidence about giving decisions by people who involve a trusted advisor in formally structuring giving strategies, with guidelines and, in some cases, restrictions and accountability.  

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