Monday, June 8, 2015

Family Harmony as a Planning Priority Part 3: Five Ideas for Improving Family Harmony

If you believe that Family Harmony should be a planning priority (see Part 1 of this series) and you are committed to not harming your clients’ Family Harmony (see Part 2), then the next question you must ask yourself is this: How can I proactively improve Family Harmony for my clients? 

I believe improving Family Harmony goes much deeper than facilitating families holding hands and singing a few choruses of “Kumbaya.”  The Thriving 3-GEN Family model employed by SunBridge provides a catalytic framework for rich, breakthrough thinking about how to foster Family Harmony in the planning and advisory processes. 

From the quadrants of The Thriving 3-GEN Family model, I have fashioned five ideas in the form of questions that the advisor can pose to the family.  This is best done when the advisor is acting as a facilitator in a family council. 

I recommend that we advisors focus on questions — rather than answers — because the smartest “experts” on the subject of Family Harmony are the family members themselves.  They know the family better than anyone and they know what will work best for them. 

As the advisor, our job is to carefully frame the questions; create an environment in which family members can do their own best thinking; and if necessary provide them information about compliance and regulatory constraints.  We may need to challenge them to think far outside the boxes in which they presently find themselves.

Beyond that, however, we need to leave the answers to them.  Their answers will be far better than our answers.  And they’ll be much more likely to implement if the results originated with them instead of us.

Please note, this is a list of questions, not the list.  Many more questions will come to your mind as you study The Successful 3-GEN Family model and think about each client family and their unique circumstances.

Here are some ideas/questions to get you started:

Question #1.  [The Library]:  How can our family capture and communicate family stories from all generations, to all generations?

As human beings, we are hard-wired to communicate with stories.  It is our native language.  We connect with those who listen to our stories and we cherish those whose stories we have truly heard.  Through stories, we understand their world and they understand ours.  Nurturing family stories is essential to strengthening family relationships.

There are two sets of stories that are critical to Family Harmony: 1) stories of the family’s past, their heritage and their history, and 2) stories of the family’s shared, collective future.  Knowing and sharing the first provide the environment for developing the second.

Building a family identity through shared stories of the past forms a baseline of what it means to be a member of this family.  As we sit around the modern-day equivalent of the tribal fire, it is essential that all members of the tribe know those stories and can pass them along to the younger generations.

But sharing the past, while important, is insufficient to preserve Family Harmony.  Lasting relationships exist only among those who share a credible story of a shared future.  Our lives are full of “ex’s” and “former’s” and “used-to-be’s.”  We share memories with them but memories do not equal relationships.  We may share a past with them, but if we can’t look ahead and see our lives intertwined in a positive way, there’s no real relationship.  A shared vision of a collective tomorrow is the sine qua non of every meaningful family relationship today.

Perpetuating family heritage stories and creating shared family vision stories takes work and attention.  Given the dispersed nature of multi-generational families today, it will probably require modern technology to harness and hold those stories for all to hear and see.  I believe such an investment is time and money well spent.

Question #2. [The Playground]:  How can our family provide opportunities for family members to play together?

Wholesome recreation is one of the ingredients of a thriving family.  “The family that plays together, stays together.  The family that isn’t ‘working’ is the family that isn’t playing together.  Playing together is an essential trait of happy, healthy families.” Jim Burn

Every family’s definition of playing together is different; that’s one reason the wise advisor asks great questions and allows the family to find their own right answers.  Some families play golf; others play Scrabble or Rummy or Risk.  Some fish or hunt; others wouldn’t be caught dead with a fishing pole or shotgun in their hands.  Some love the beach; others would prefer to hike and camp in the mountains.  Some like to sit around and chat; others play softball or flag football or go skiing.  Certain foods are almost always a part of most families’ recreation.

The point is, each family decides for itself what form of recreation they enjoy.  The family council needs to consider how the family can come together on a consistent basis and allocate some of their “together time” to having fun.

The family may have the means to maintain a recreational property such as a house on the beach, a cabin in the mountains, or part of the family farm.  If so, this issue needs to be discussed, appropriate decisions taken, and these decisions implemented so that this valuable resource can enhance Family Harmony. 

But owning a vacation property isn’t required to establish and maintain a tradition of family gatherings and recreational get-togethers.  All it takes is the will to do so and the commitment to follow through on family fun as a priority.

Question #3. [The Wheelhouse]: How can we encourage and sustain an attitude of entrepreneurship in all generations of our family? 

“Shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations,” is how the proverb goes.  Over time, the families that die on the vine are those who never replicate the drive, initiative, and creativity of the “founding” generation.  Within three generations, they wither away and are scattered to the wind.

While this “shirtsleeves to shirtsleeve” phenomenon usually refers to the family’s financial capital, it also applies with the same force to all forms of family capital, whether intellectual, social, spiritual, artistic, character, etc.  Regardless of the forms of “wealth” to which this principle may be applied, resilient families encourage and sustain an attitude of entrepreneurship in each generation of the family. 

By contrast, non-resilient families rest on the laurels or ride on the coattails or live in the shadows of their upstream ancestor as they steadily consume the “wealth” he or she left behind.  Without constant renewal from generation to generation, the family’s essence slowly bleeds out.

The questions of what attitudes and skills are necessary for members of younger generations to leave the comforts of the nest and soar into the wild blue yonder of growth and new opportunity, and how those attitudes and skills can be fostered in each new generation, is a subject worthy of each family’s best thinking.  Finding the answers that work for each family will be the lifeblood that sustains it and builds Family Harmony from one generation to the next.

Question #4. [The Storehouse]: How can we use our resources to foster self-reliance among family members?

Robert D. Hales defined self-reliance as “preparing for the ups and downs of life,” to which I would add, “without an unhealthy dependence on someone else’s (in this case the family’s) money.”  Self-reliance means developing the internal capacity to produce the necessities of life, the ingenuity to find alternative solutions to life’s inevitable challenges, and the maturity to recognize that very often, “less” is in fact “more.”

Some would argue that self-reliance is antithetical to Family Harmony, that too much independence gets in the way of harmonious relationships.  I say that self-reliance is a precursor to Family Harmony, that only self-reliant family members can build mutually supportive and lasting relationships.  In the words of Stephen R. Covey, “interdependence is a decision only independent people can make.”

The opposite of self-reliance is dependency and an attitude of entitlement.  Self-reliance fosters a sense of abundance, while dependency and entitlement foster a sense of scarcity.  A scarcity mindset disrupts Family Harmony, as family members jockey for and squabble over their slice of a finite pie, worried that someone else might get what is “rightfully mine.”

Self-reliance coupled with an abundance mindset beget optimism, resourcefulness, and generosity.  If any family can develop those five attributes, they will discover that Family Harmony is a piece of cake.

Question #5. [The Academy]:  Is there a meaningful cause that all of us can support?  How can we use all our wealth (not just our money) to make a difference?

Family philanthropy is a wonderful tool for teaching a wide range of important life skills.  As teenagers and young adults are challenged to make thoughtful gifts, they organically acquire important tools for thriving in today’s world.  Some of these include:

  •          Financial Literacy
  •          Written and Oral Communication Skills
  •          Confidence and Self Esteem
  •          Community Awareness
  •          Interpersonal Trust and Communication
  •          Identification of Personal Values & Purpose
  •          Group Collaboration
  •          Group Decision-making
  •          Volunteerism
  •          Gratitude
  •          Creative Fund-raising
  •          Understanding the Tax System
  •          Investigation & Evaluation of Organizations

The key to a successful family philanthropic experience is to engage the younger generation’s interest from the start.  From my experience working with client families of all sizes and types, and with teenagers in Main Street Philanthropy, I have learned that today’s youth and young adults can get very excited about family philanthropy IF they are allowed to participate fully in the decision of what causes to support.  The only time this process hasn’t worked was when one of the parents or grandparents insisted on having his or her own way.

I use a set of Make a Difference flash cards to put a large number of possible charitable causes on the table and to kindle a robust family discussion.  Once the discussion has been started, it’s important that everyone’s voice is heard and everyone’s vote is counted, and then that everyone rally around the chosen mission.

The quality of the family’s philanthropic experience depends less on the number of dollars given away, and much more on how many different forms of non-financial wealth the family chooses to employ — along with their money — to leverage their gift. 

When time, talent, connections, creativity, and other resources are thrown into the mix, family members learn how they can truly make a difference.  They learn that the capacity to spark change is not limited by the size of the family’s balance sheet.  They discover that their human capital is ultimately more valuable than those assets that are measured in dollars and cents. 

* * * * *
As you can see, when I talk about Family Harmony, I am not thinking about civility, “getting along,” or even friendship. That’s way too shallow. I’m talking about bone-deep connection on a rock-solid foundation of love, integrity, and character. 

This is far grander work than merely avoiding shoving and shouting at annual family meetings.  This is the opportunity to touch hearts, connect families, and change lives.  It doesn’t get any better than that!

Now that I’ve shared with you five of my ideas/questions based on The Thriving 3-GEN Family model, what additional ideas/questions can you think of?

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Family Harmony as a Planning Priority Part 2: First, Do No Harm

“Primum Non Nocere:” Latin for “first, do no harm.” A guiding principle for physicians that, whatever the intervention or procedure, the physician should not cause harm to the patient.

Some time ago, I was asked to prepare a will for a man with only a few days to live.  I found him to be head-strong and opinionated, notwithstanding his imminent death.  
He said he wanted to leave everything to his wife, but he also pointedly wanted to disinherit one of his adult sons, with whom he had had a minor tiff a few days earlier over something in his yard.  He was absolutely determined to get the last word.  I made several attempts to dissuade him but he wouldn’t hear of it. I challenged him again and again — even pushing him to the point of anger — but he wouldn’t budge.  I finally just asked him to think about it some more and completed the will as he instructed.

Fortunately for all involved, he sent a copy to his best friend, who had been named as the executor.  When the friend read the part about disinheriting the son, he immediately recognized the danger.  He began searching and praying for the right opportunity to bring up the matter.

That moment arrived as the client was in hospice, literally on his deathbed.  This was their conversation:

            “I feel honored to be appointed to serve as your executor.”

            “You’re my best friend.  Why wouldn’t I ask you to be my executor?”

            “Thank you for thinking of me, but I’m going to have to refuse to serve.”

            “But I thought we were friends.  How could you refuse the request of a dying friend?”

            “Because I think you’re making a terrible mistake, and I don’t want to be any part of it.”

            “What mistake?”

            “Disinheriting your son.”

            “He deserves it.  He was so disrespectful to me.  I need to teach him a lesson.”

            “You’ll teach him a lesson alright, but I don’t think it’s the one you want to teach.”

            “What do you mean?”

“You’ll teach him that some insignificant ‘stuff’ is more important to you than he is.  You’ll teach him that everything good you tried to do in this life was meaningless and hypocritical.  You’ll teach him that in your heart of hearts, you’re just a grumpy, vindictive, hard-hearted old bastard.”


“Is that the legacy you really want to leave?  Is that how you want him and your family to remember you?”

More silence.

“I’m leaving everything to my wife, so it really doesn’t mean anything.  My son wouldn’t get anything anyway.”

“And that’s all the more reason this is such a foolish thing to do.  Whether he receives anything from your estate will soon be forgotten, but the sting of being disinherited will NEVER go away.  Your words will go with him to his grave, and beyond.”

More silence.

“Friend, you know I’m right.  You’re just being bullheaded.  Why don’t you let me ask Scott to prepare a new will and take that ugly part out?  I’m sure the document is still in his computer and it will take him about two minutes to fix it.”

            “Well, I’ll think about it.”

I was so pleased when the friend called me and asked how quickly I could produce a replacement will without the offensive language. 

 “I can do it at once and get it right over to you.  I just hope you can get it signed before it’s too late and then get rid of the other one.”

“Don’t worry,” he said, “I’ll take care of it.  That’s what friends are for.”

He was as good as his word.  The new will was signed that night and the earlier will was shredded.  

When I heard the news, I breathed a huge sigh of relief.  Disaster averted.

The client died the following evening.

* * * * *

Situations like this one create a huge ethical and moral dilemma for me as one who believes that family harmony should be one of our highest planning priorities.  My first obligation is of course to my client the testator.  But in a larger sense, the true objects of my efforts are those members of the testator’s family who will reap the rewards or bear the brunt of my success or failure in helping the client make family harmony a priority in his plans.

Just as a criminal defense attorney must sometimes represent a client he knows is guilty, there will be times when my clients will insist on putting features in their plans that disrupt family harmony. Ultimately it is their plan, not mine.  After 35 years in the business, I’ve come to terms with that unpleasant aspect of my work.  However, I am an advisor and a counselor and not a mere scrivener in the process; thus I must be willing to push back when clients propose things that I feel will not be in their best interests or the best interests of their family.

I’ve learned that estate plans can cause harm in a multitude of ways, some less obvious than others.  When it’s a head-on threat to family harmony like disinheriting a child or grandchild, I can deal with that.  My greater fear is that I will not recognize the family-threatening nature of some feature of a plan I draft, and thereby I will inadvertently cause harm.  Here are three examples that might fall into that category:

  •   When parents’ priorities and values are imposed on children and grandchildren;
  • When one family member is given a role or responsibility that pits him against another family member; and
  • When distributions are unexpectedly uneven and no credible explanation of the disparity is offered.
These and other similar features should not be casually or routinely included in estate plans.  My duty, I believe, is to make clear to the client how these provisions can seriously damage family relationships.  I must make sure the client has fully weighed the pros and cons of employing them in his plan.  If possible, I should suggest creative alternatives that would achieve the client’s objectives without jeopardizing family harmony.

If the maxim “first, do no harm” applies to estate planners as well as physicians — and I believe it does — then we must resist estate planning provisions that tear asunder family relationships, whether intentional or inadvertent.  That’s a duty we simply cannot avoid.

Next:  Family Harmony as a Planning Priority — Part 3: Improving Family Harmony