Inheriting Wealth The Right Way

Updated: Nov 15, 2019



During the next 20 years, trillions of dollars of wealth in the United States will transfer from parents reaching life expectancy to their children, many of whom range today from their 40’s-60’s. Many Americans today have accumulated staggering amounts of wealth and were never comfortable spending much of it in their old age due to fears of another depression, illness, or the possibility of unforeseen expenses. Seniors with several million dollars these days is not as rare as you might think, and at some point, that wealth is going to be dumped on the children, regardless if are ready for it or not.

It is commonly known that inherited wealth can come with elevated levels of complexity ranging from taxation, sibling conflicts, legal aspects, and in my humble opinion, elevated levels of financial dysfunction as observed personally many times as a practitioner in the financial planning space. Traditional estate planning seeks merely to divide and transfer assets, which can turn families from “we to me”. Sometime close brothers and sisters end up never speaking to each other again over inherited money conflicts. What an awful and unintended outcome of parent’s wealth, and to parents who were just trying to do the best they could with what they had.

Because of such dysfunction, inherited wealth is usually gone by the third generation. In Ireland they say, “clogs to clogs in three generations”. In Japan they say, “rice paddy to rice paddy in three generations”. In the US it’s “shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations”. What does that mean? It means that the generation who creates wealth, leaves with their wealth an unintended sense of entitlement that causes the next generation to squander the wealth that was inherited, rather than grow it and pass it on to future generations. We have seen it a million times. The trust fund baby becomes a financial wreck and mess in life. Just remember Dudley Moore in the movie Arthur. I think it’s fair to say the money was the ruin of him as he drank his days away and knew nothing of a hard day’s work and thriftiness.

Heck even right here in the good ole USA, far too many Americans won’t get off their duff and work because they feel entitled by their rich Uncle Sam, or some future inheritance they anticipate from their parents…. Not good! Entitlement is the exact opposite of gratitude. People who live a life filled with a sense of gratitude do not feel entitled and therefore are much more responsible when they inherit wealth. It’s great to leave money to our kids, but would it not be better to leave them things that matter more?

When I council people I ask them to tell me about what the most important things to them on this earth are. RARELY do they start to tell me about pensions, 401(k) accounts and real estate. Rather they begin to describe things of higher importance like family, faith, values and virtues. If these are the things that really matter most to people, how then do we transfer things of a higher value to those we love and not just dump money on them that can come with unintended consequences?

May I suggest that we learn to transfer to our children some principles on gratitude before we let them inherit money? If you want to go down this path and it makes sense to you then you must learn to become a grateful person yourself first. Where do you start? Get a “gratitude journal”. Write down every day for a month several things that you are grateful for and why you think you were able to experience these things. I guarantee you that your life will change for the better. You will start to look at others differently. You will avoid negative conversions and thoughts. You might even look at your spouse differently. God may be able to speak to you more when your thoughts shift to gratitude. Practicing gratitude would be the best and most prudent step for anyone who anticipates inheriting wealth from their parents.

I also suggest that you never plan on receiving a dime from your parents because you might not. I have news for you…. If your parent have a couple of million dollars, and you are beginning to live your life as if you will have a future cash injection in the next few years, don’t. You might never see a penny. For one, your parents might live a LOT longer than you ever realized. According to the USC School of Gerontology, the average American woman who reach age 65 by 2015 has a 1 in 3 chance of seeing her 90th birthday. Many seniors today are even seeing their 100th! - Your parent’s money might get consumed by medical, funeral, legal and senior living expenses which could easily run 5-8K per month, and the money you thought you would get can be suddenly gone! That’s not good for you if you have already gone out and bought a house and cars that you really can’t afford.

In my opinion it’s a bad idea to live your life now based on the idea that you might inherit money one day. I have seen people spend money they don’t have, buying things they don’t need, to impress people they don’t like, just because they plan on getting a big payday one day. Don’t you do it…Your parents sacrificed to build up their assets and it serves no one’s best interest not to be a good steward of those resources. Who knows, they could change their Will in their old age and leave their money to a good charity; and they just might do it should they observe you living in anticipation of a big payday upon their death.

If I was your coach I would ask you to consider how you can honor your parents with the money you inherit from them. What would your parents want to see you do with part of the money? This would always be a good starting question to ask yourself.

I would also suggest good advice, legal, financial, tax and otherwise. Inherited wealth can have significant and costly tax considerations that can throw you and your spouse in a much higher tax bracket. Choices can be made with inherited qualified accounts that can reduce your tax burden by taking advantage of the IRS publication 590 rules which can allow you to withdrawal inherited IRA’s over your lifetime, and even over the lifetime of your children. Tax expert Ed Slott referred to this strategy as a “stretch IRA”. Ed Slott was called the country’s leading IRA expert by the Wall Street journal and his book “Stay Rich for Life” is chock full of tax and investment strategies for inherited assets that many astute financial advisors are keen to. Be mindful that there are no “do overs” with inherited wealth. Missing out on tax and investment strategies can cost you dearly, so make sure you are getting good advice regarding how to invest the money and how to minimize taxes.

The definition of stewardship is “overseeing and protecting something considered worth caring for and preserving”. Should your parents entrust you with inherited wealth I suggest you take on the mindset of stewardship and with the sense of duty that this responsibility requires. We owe our parents that much…..Matthew 25:29


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