Preventing Affluenza: When and How To Tell Your Children about Family Wealth

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Gifted or inherited wealth can be a welcome windfall. Still, you only need to look to Hollywood to see how destructive wealth can be to young adults.

Many experts, but not all, say that wealthy parents who plan to give substantial sums to their children should talk to them about wealth early – when they’re about six to seven years old.

“Many parents postpone speaking with their children about family wealth for fear that it will rob them of motivation,” Lisa Colletti, director of wealth management and principal at Aspiriant, a wealth management company. “While the concern is understandable, ignoring the topic robs the family of the opportunity to discuss values and long-term financial goals.”

“Speaking to children about wealth can be a double-edged sword...on one hand it makes sense for children over 21 to know where the assets are ‘just in case of a family emergency,’" says Joshua Austin Scheinker , senior vice president of wealth management at Scheinker Investment Partners of Janney Montgomery Scott. “On the other hand, you don't want hard-earned wealth destroyed by irresponsible kids.

Scheinker thinks parents should continuously test their children’s responsibility with money and when they feel comfortable, allow them to manage their wealth.

Tim Shanahan, president and chief investment strategist at Compass Capital, suggests asking your kids, hypothetically, what they would do if they suddenly inherited a large sum of money.

“In our experience, most high-net worth families wait until their children have a college degree under their belt before divulging the specifics,” says Shankar Iyer, a senior vice president and wealth management advisor at Merrill Lynch in Chicago. “Our approach has been to hold a ‘family summit,’ where both parents and children attend to discuss family wealth related values, including philosophies towards philanthropy, investment risk, tax minimization and intra-family gifting.”

“I had one client who [held off telling] her children they had money,” says Lynn Ballou, managing partner of Ballou Plum Wealth Advisors. “Instead, they worked for everything they had as if they were just barely making it, including spending months working in poor communities around the globe. By the time she introduced them to the notion of the family wealth as young adults, they were passionate about being giving citizens of the world, which they continue to be to this day."

Michael Marcovici, senior vice president with the Private Banking &Investment Group of Merrill Lynch in Chicago, echoes that thought with a partnering twist.

“The smartest parents I know teach their children about a lesson through a shared experience,” Marcovici says. “A child is much more likely to learn about the value of money through giving back, through volunteering their time or talent to a cause that's important to their family. They need to live it, get their hands dirty, see the faces of the people they are helping.”

But Colletti points out that children who are unaware that they will be given large sums of money may make important decisions that may have been different had they known that money wouldn’t be a problem. They may have chosen to have more children or take a different career path had they known they would have more money to back them up.

Marcovici sums it up this way: “As with anything in life, if you chase money, you will never be truly successful,” Marcovici says. “If, however, you chase a mission or values, money will be a derivative of that process. If children start at an early age chasing a mission or values, they will have a proper relationship with wealth and money later in life.”

--Written by S.Z. Berg for MainStreet

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