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Talking to your family about finances

Although intergenerational discussions surrounding money aren’t always easy, finding common ground can help ease conversations. Here are three things to consider.

Father, son and grandson walking on the beach

They say that even as adults we have trouble seeing ourselves as anything other than children compared to our moms and dads. That often cuts both ways. Parents may have trouble seeing their kids as full-fledged adults, even when they’re in middle age — and especially when it comes to finances. “When children step up to take ownership of their financial lives, their parents often see them in a different light,” says Hope C. Ellis, a senior vice president and senior trust officer for Bank of America Private Bank.

In some cases, parents have cause to worry. Some adult children may be ill-equipped to oversee an inheritance or trust for many reasons including not being fully immersed in managing wealth. In other families, conflicts may center on diametric differences between generations in worldview, approach to child rearing, values espoused and other such imperatives.

Either way, it’s essential that families talk frankly about these issues in order to find common ground around finances, says Jennifer Chandler, Head of Philanthropic Solutions for Bank of America Private Bank. “Once the communication barriers fall, you may find that your differences are only matters of degrees rather than opposites,” he says.

Can we talk?

Part of the reason these conversations get sticky: differences in communication styles between generations, says Chris DeSantis, a human behavior expert who works with companies on how to bridge generational differences. Someone who had an old-school upbringing, raised not to question authority, for example, may see a grandchild voicing unsolicited opinions about the family wealth as an overly aggressive upstart who hasn’t earned his or her place at the table. Younger generations today are even more comfortable challenging norms, including how the family invests, than prior ones. “Their parents often explained why they wanted their children to do something instead of just telling them to do it. And as adults, they are quick to ask why and they expect to see evidence that something should be done a certain way,” says DeSantis. Here are three key areas to find common ground:

“Once the communication barriers fall, you may find that your differences are only matters of degrees rather than opposites.”

Jennifer Chandler, Head of Philanthropic Solutions, Bank of America Private Bank

Encouraging financial fluency

All families of means should embrace the idea that their children and grandchildren ought to become comfortable with financial matters and develop the knowledge and skills to understand them. One way to do this, Ellis suggests, is to ask children to gradually step into a larger financial role. The parents of one young adult, for example, were worried she wouldn’t be ready to manage her inheritance when the time came. So they decided to give their daughter a significant financial gift at age 25 — the funds for which otherwise would have been held in trust until she reached age 40 — on the condition that she receive financial mentoring by Ellis. “Together we created a budget, discussed her liquidity needs and developed a strategy for investing the money,” says Ellis. “By gaining real-life experience managing money, this young woman can not only demonstrate to her parents that she is responsible, but she is also far more engaged in family discussions about wealth.”

Allowing for the discovery of purpose

Too many successful people fall into the trap of believing that the choices that contributed to their great achievements and wealth are the right — and only — paths for those coming after them, says DeSantis. Their heirs, meanwhile, often view work through a purpose-driven lens, eschewing more traditionally lucrative careers in favor of nonprofit work, an art studio or a nontraditional entrepreneurial enterprise. Ellis recalls parents who were arguing with their son about whether he could create a viable business from a YouTube channel. Something that seemed abundantly clear to the son appeared wispy and vague to the parents. But when the son was able to show his parents the very thorough business plan he had created and evidence of advertising support he’d secured, they saw the entire venture — and their son — in a new light and agreed to help fund his efforts.

Even those who have founded their own companies may struggle to appreciate their kids’ or grandkids’ entrepreneurial ideas, at least initially. One family was at loggerheads over the 28-year-old daughter’s dream to start a company providing Ayurvedic therapies and acupuncture. “In our discussions it emerged that her parents were worried that her inheritance would be in jeopardy if her company was sued over a bad outcome, especially if clients found out she had personal wealth,” says Ellis. Their very success made them wary of their daughter’s willingness to take a chance on her own business. In this case, adding additional legacy protections provided a solution: Ellis recommended that the daughter’s inheritance be put in trust to protect it from lawsuits and that ownership of her business be transferred to a general partnership to limit her personal liability. The business is now thriving in the daughter’s small town, and the parents express great pride in her success.

Expressing values

While parents may have strong ideas about values, children should, whenever possible, be given the freedom to express them as they choose, says DeSantis, noting “the older generation’s gift to the young isn’t just to hand over success. It’s to prepare them to be successful in the ways that hold meaning for them.”

Marta Engram, a managing director and private client advisor for Bank of America Private Bank, cites the example of a couple with a long history of philanthropic giving, who wants to pass that passion on to their five children. “Every member of the second generation has been given his or her own charitable foundation, allowing the individual family units the freedom to give according to their own interests,” she says. “The value of giving back is much more important to this family than in dictating which organizations the family as a whole should support.” The younger generations have as a result become very engaged in philanthropy because they are giving to organizations and causes that are personally relevant to them.

Chris Biotti, a managing director and division executive for Bank of America Private Bank, notes that these types of lessons can be a two-way street, too, as when younger clients have taught their elders about the value of socially responsible investing. “We are learning that values are dynamic; we help families have these conversations so they can come together and create a foundation that stands the test of time.”

Discussions about when and how much to entrust the family’s legacy to younger generations are never easy. But each generation can navigate these emotionally charged conversations by keeping the focus on the family’s common goals and values. By keeping an open mind, trying creative solutions and emphasizing what’s shared, you can all see that your family likely has much more in common than they have differences. Even an uncomfortable decision can be received with grace if it is communicated in the right way. Another couple, for example, asked Ellis and Engram to talk to their daughter and her new fiancé about a prenuptial agreement. “The parents worried that their insistence on a prenuptial agreement would appear that they were passing judgment on their future son-in-law, whom they liked,” says Engram, and it would create tension in their relationship with their daughter. The two advisors framed the prenuptial agreement as a way to preserve and protect the family’s legacy, explaining that the daughter had a responsibility to protect it for the next generation, an explanation that the young couple appreciated. Your Bank of America Private Bank wealth advisor can help facilitate the kind of communication necessary to bridge generation gaps.

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