multi generation family talking in kitchen in page

Common sense might suggest that the most important element of estate planning is preparing and structuring the family assets for the inheriting family members. Equally important is the role of communication: it’s critical to ensure the lines of communication are open between the generation that’s building the wealth and the one that will inherit it. Yet having that open dialogue is an often-overlooked step in inheritance planning.

Many high net worth Canadians are postponing the ‘inheritance talk’ or not planning to educate the next generation at all, according to our survey of 1,054 Canadians on giving and inheriting wealth. Unfortunately, this creates a risk that when the time comes, inheritors will be unprepared or ill-equipped for the responsibility of managing family wealth and preserving it for future generations.

People can pass on their financial acumen in many ways, such as drawing on outside experts and giving their children hands-on experience with managing selected assets. In fact, it can begin with something far more elementary, such as having regular family meetings, says Sonia Park-Root, Vice President and Private Wealth Consultant at RBC Wealth Management in Toronto. “Family meetings provide the opportunity to open up communication in whatever fashion the family chooses.”

Our study identified three main barriers to initiating conversations about inheritance and wealth planning: “my plans have not been finalized,” “I don’t believe they’re old enough,” and “I don’t think they’re ready for the conversation,” which could be an indication of maturity or other factors unrelated to age. The main barrier – that parents haven’t yet completed their wealth transfer plans – is one we explore in depth in the Wealth Transfer Report. Here are three strategies that families can use to break through the conversation barriers and start talking about inheritance planning.

1. Build financial confidence by starting early

Age was a key barrier cited by more than one in four, or 27 percent, of Canadians surveyed – but how much of a barrier is it? Beth, a survey respondent who heads a company specializing in financial and human resource education for families, says that people should start teaching their children basic financial concepts as early as five years old. “Families that start teaching their children between the ages of five and nine can succeed if they continuously repeat their financial values. By the time they’re 10, you want to start teaching them key financial concepts,” which include saving, spending and sharing.

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Our study clearly shows that it’s better to start earlier. In fact, there’s a strong correlation between starting early and building confidence: 66 percent of those who started their structured financial education before the age of 18 describe themselves as confident in wealth matters.

Colin, another survey respondent who runs the office that manages his family’s considerable holdings, began his financial education at age eight, when his grandmother gifted him a summer house. “My parents went crazy,” he recalls. His grandmother told him somebody wanted to buy the house, and she prompted him through the steps to making a decision. “She walked me through the best decisions and downloaded all of her knowledge into my little mind.”

Park-Root agrees, noting that, while Colin may be an exception, it’s wise to begin the next generation’s financial education early. “In terms of communications, I think you can start at a very young age. I’ve done work with clients who started when their children were just getting into their teens.” How young depends largely on the family circumstances. If the younger generation is already of adult age when the family estate becomes substantial, that may require a different approach than one where the children are born into considerable wealth. “I don’t have strict hard-and-fast rules about how old they should be because every family is different.”

In families with multigenerational wealth, educating children about their responsibilities is often a two-fold process: parents must prepare them to take over the family’s wealth, and also prepare them to deal with the attention they may receive because of their financial status. “Even if parents don’t discuss the family’s wealth, they could be hearing from others that they’re from a rich family. If that’s the case, you definitely want to make sure that your children hear it from you,” says Park-Root.

2. Talk often and reinforce financial values

Even when it’s clear the younger generation is ready to learn about finances, broaching the ‘inheritance talk’ can be daunting. One option is to not broach it formally, but simply to have everyday conversations about money and wealth at the dinner table, when buying groceries, shopping for toys, or when the topic of money arises. The key is to foster a casual environment and make sure that children feel comfortable asking questions and voicing their thoughts. Park-Root recommends starting with simple concepts, such as saving and spending, before moving on to more sophisticated concepts. Parents who want to establish money as a regular conversation topic during dinnertime may want to have a few specific topics prepared.

Family meetings are another, more formal route – and they’re an excellent way to establish regular communication among family members. “There’s no requirement to disclose numbers at a family meeting,” says Park-Root. “What’s important is to facilitate open dialogue around financial concepts, philosophies of wealth, purpose and sharing of family values.” If parents don’t feel comfortable running the family meeting themselves, Park-Root suggests bringing in an advisor or consultant to help set the agenda, facilitate the meeting, and offer a professional perspective.

Imran, a former investment banker and survey respondent, regularly discusses finances with his five sons between the ages of 21 and 31. “There will always be questions in the back of your mind whether the children will know how to handle the money. Will they squander it? I am lucky in that they always turn to me,” he says, partly because of his finance background. “I offer my opinion, but I don’t tell them they’re wrong.”

3. Seek opportunities for hands-on experience

Those with a family business have an advantage, because involving children in the business provides a great platform for imparting lessons about personal responsibility and financial knowledge, no matter the age. While only 11 percent of Canadian respondents had received training through investment in the family business, nearly three-quarters of those who did considered it an effective way to enhance their financial knowledge. Park-Root recommends starting with a summer job doing junior tasks and building up from there. “As children start to express more interest in the business, parents can begin to groom and mentor them further.”

Families who don’t manage an enterprise may find it effective to bring in a third party, such as a mentor, family friend or trusted advisor, to open up a dialogue about family finances and responsibilities. Another option is to include children in the family’s philanthropic endeavours, which may hold greater appeal for the younger generation than the idea of estate management. Park-Root worked with a family that set up a project for underprivileged children, which focuses on their interest in giving back to their community as a way to educate the children about money and the value of charitable work.

Estate and succession planning have traditionally been about preparing assets for the next generation – which Park-Root likes to turn on its head, emphasizing that it’s equally important to prepare the next generation for receiving the assets. “We advise parents to proceed with preparing assets for their children, while also preparing their children for the assets,” she says. “People want their next generation to be capable of managing family wealth responsibly and in a way that’s consistent with the family’s values, so you do need to do both.”