Family Harmony Is Key to a Lasting Legacy

May 31, 2024 Susan Hirshman
The most effective estate planning includes open communication with family to ensure there are no emotional roadblocks to creating a legacy that lasts for generations.

For most people, generational wealth is about providing opportunity and security for their family. No matter how much estate planning you do, your vision could be compromised if your heirs aren't ready and willing to take on the responsibility of managing the family's legacy.

Getting ahead of such challenges often comes down to proactive efforts to nurture family harmony and cohesiveness. Here are five considerations to help improve communication and address potential conflicts before they arise.

1. Take stock of current dynamics

To begin, assess how your family is doing: Do you feel optimistic or concerned about your heirs' ability to carry on your legacy? Do you feel like your family is emotionally connected and able to communicate in a respectful and open manner?  Are there family structural issues (second families, for example) that may cause tension?  

Taking some time to reflect on these questions can provide you with invaluable and consequential insights to help you develop a plan.  

In addition, look out for common signs of strain such as:  

  • You hesitate to start estate-planning conversations with heirs. 
  • A foundation funded with family money has little or no family participation.
  • Family members are jockeying for position in the family company. 
  • You have been unable to develop a formal governance structure for the family company.

This list is by no means exhaustive, but these (or similar) scenarios are challenges that need to be addressed. The sooner you can identify and address the areas of concern in family harmony, the more effective your estate and legacy planning will be. 

2. Open an honest dialogue

Having an open and honest dialogue sounds simple enough, but for many families it can feel overwhelming. It may help to keep in mind that these types of conversations are not one and done — and are not only about money.    

In an ongoing family discussion, each meeting might have a specific theme. For example, one conversation could be about individual and shared values and purpose, another could be about philanthropic ideas. You could meet to discuss the structure of the estate plan, and on another occasion you might talk about what it means to be a good steward of wealth for future generations.  
If just getting the conversation started feels too difficult, you might propose a more formal meeting with a third party there to facilitate the discussion.

Even if your family seems to be good at talking everything out, look for places that might need more attention. For example, are some heirs more engaged than others? Do you sense any entitlement or lurking conflicts? Addressing such issues, or at least acknowledging them, may help prevent bigger issues down the road. 

3. Practice listening

Sometimes it can be helpful to consider the role you play in the family. Do you entertain outside perspectives? How flexible can you be in nurturing the family dynamics? Consider your communication style, too. Are you approachable? You might even ask your spouse how you come across during family discussions. If you can take the feedback and adjust your approach, you might like the results.

Consider raising questions directly with your children or heirs. Invite them to tell you how they feel about your efforts to discuss the family's wealth. Directly offer to address their questions and concerns about the family's wealth and estate-planning goals.

Be patient and as open-minded as possible during family discussions, as this may be an opportunity to learn about the things other people in your family value and hope for. Try to really hear what they have to say. If you do, there’s potential to deepen your connection with your family members.

4. Don't leave things to chance

On top of regular, productive estate-planning conversations, we recommend writing a letter to be shared with your heirs when you pass away that reinforces your estate-planning intentions and your vision for a long-lasting legacy. Putting your thoughts in writing can serve as a reminder of the work you've done together to establish a healthy family dynamic and may also help them move forward with unity and purpose. 

5. Bring in outside help

If the dynamics in your family or among your heirs seem daunting, or if you're unsure how to proceed, there are resources you can tap. Even if you just want to be sure you're doing everything you can to create healthy communication, outside assistance can be a benefit. Consider consulting your wealth advisor, estate lawyer, or even a family dynamics specialist to help you navigate these challenging, yet essential, conversations. 

Don't go it alone

Your Schwab financial or wealth advisor has extensive experience helping affluent families navigate challenging conversations and develop a shared vision for the future. Reach out to learn more.

Your Schwab financial or wealth advisor has extensive experience helping affluent families navigate challenging conversations and develop a shared vision for the future. Reach out to learn more.

The information provided here is for general informational purposes only and should not be considered an individualized recommendation or personalized investment advice. The investment strategies mentioned here may not be suitable for everyone. Each investor needs to review an investment strategy for his or her own particular situation before making any investment decision.

All expressions of opinion are subject to change without notice in reaction to shifting market conditions. Data contained herein from third-party providers is obtained from what are considered reliable sources. However, its accuracy, completeness, or reliability cannot be guaranteed.

Examples provided are for illustrative purposes only and not intended to be reflective of results you can expect to achieve.

The information and content provided herein is general in nature and is for informational purposes only. It is not intended, and should not be construed, as a specific recommendation, individualized tax, legal, or investment advice. Tax laws are subject to change, either prospectively or retroactively. Where specific advice is necessary or appropriate, individuals should contact their own professional tax and investment advisors or other professionals (CPA, Financial Planner, Investment Manager) to help answer questions about specific situations or needs prior to taking any action based upon this information.