“What are other families doing in this situation?”- Susan Schoenfeld

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Throughout my career working with ultra-high net worth families, the one consistent question I hear is: What are other families doing in this situation? How are other families successfully raising their children in an atmosphere of wealth to become competent and confident stewards of their wealth?

I have worked with many families of wealth over the course of my career. The beauty and the thrill of the work that I do is that every family is unique, like a snowflake; nevertheless, family challenges do fall into certain discernible patterns.

Looking back on the 8 years since I founded Wealth Legacy Advisors, a distinct pattern has emerged in families who have engaged me to help guide them through a particular challenge they face. In all cases, the families have significant wealth, whether inherited or created at their generation, such that they are thinking about their legacy and the generations that will come after them.

In almost all cases, families come to me because they are facing a transition or transaction involving a business matter, perhaps in an operating family business or, if the family has already sold their business then the issue might involve the “business of the family” — the family’s ongoing investments. These families invited me to help guide their discussions because they understood that with my background in business and law, I could help them address the complex financial underpinnings of the matters at hand, while acknowledging that the true conflict source was at the intersection of those financial matters with the family dynamics iceberg lying deeper below the surface.

Although I am a ‘recovering’ Trusts & Estates attorney with a J.D. and LL.M. in Taxation, I do not practice law or give any legal advice. Although I am a CPA and have an MBA, I do not give any tax, accounting or professional advice of any kind, but I use my skills, background and experience to inform my work with enterprising families and the challenges they face.

Some recent examples of families* who have engaged me to facilitate their discussions include:

The Dixon family created a family bank-like structure to provide seed money to family members who wished to start a business, with required family co-ownership for any business launched as a result. One family member’s business did not match the ownership structure envisioned by the rest of the family, which resulted in disharmony and upset. Our work with the family led to a deeper discussion of the family’s underlying values, including how to educate the grandchild generation about the family’s story and principles. The values discussions branched out into a vision of a collective family philanthropy initiative.

The Lynch family faced an impending leadership succession dilemma. The business founder and visionary was approaching age 80, the two other family members active in the business were in siloed operational roles, and the founder did not believe they had the strategic skills to succeed him in the top role. After a series of family meetings, the family collectively decided to sell the company now while the founder was still able to maximize sale value.

The George family, whose operating family business was planning a significant transaction that required all the shareholders to commit to keep their capital invested in the business for a period of years. For financial as well as family dynamics reasons, some of the cousins wanted to deploy their capital elsewhere. After a series of facilitated meetings centering on fairness and respect, these cousins exited the family business so they could strengthen their family relationships without the stress of being co-investors. The remaining family members were pleased to have family harmony restored.

The Harris family had established a family limited partnership to invest in private equity. One 2nd generation family member managed the private equity and asked for an enhanced compensation formula. This request sparked dissention and conflict, but it turned out that the underlying issue was actually the perceived favored position of this family member with the family patriarch. Our mandate was to restore family harmony among the 2nd generation. One of our facilitated family meetings culminated in a spontaneous group hug among all of them!

These stories all are different, but the one common theme is the struggle at the intersection of family business and the dynamics of inter-generational communication.

*Names and some details changed to preserve client confidentiality.

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Susan Schoenfeld, a public speaker & thought partner to families of wealth and their advisors, is an author and award winning thought leader. Susan’s decision to switch from being a successful estate planning attorney and CPA to becoming a trusted family advisor and thought partner was inspired by families of wealth asking her searching questions beyond estate tax planning. As a conflict-free advisor who provides no investment, tax or legal advice and sells no product, Susan shares her insights directly with wealthy families and with financial services experts. She is active as a keynote speaker and a leader of break-out sessions and workshops at conferences throughout the US.

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