When it comes to daily family finances, women have historically played central roles: overseeing daily banking needs and guiding household money management, but when it comes to managing inherited wealth, women frequently find themselves left to their own devices.
"Take the common example of a family in which Dad predeceases Mom, but there's been no planning for this interim transfer of wealth from the first spouse to the second," says Leanne Kaufman, head of RBC Estate and Trust Services.
"What this means is that Mom is left to address everything that's required while she's also dealing with the death of her spouse. If she hasn't been 'at the table' and involved in the family finances to that point, this can be a very heavy burden for her to bear."
Given women typically live longer compared to men, many may face the responsibility of managing the family's wealth at some point in their lifetimes.
The 2016 census showed there are nearly two Canadian women for every man aged 85 and older. Among centenarians — the fastest-growing age group from 2011-2014 — this ratio is even higher, with five women for every man. Because women tend to have relationships with men who are slightly older, and because women tend to outlive men by an average of about four years, for many women this could mean as much as a full decade in which they are in charge of family assets.
Many women, however, say they received little or no guidance when receiving a transfer of wealth such as through an inheritance. RBC's recent Women and Wealth Transfer study found 36 percent of women who inherited wealth said they received no guidance at all.
Those who did tended to get only family support, versus the professional support they say could have helped shape their decision-making process. The result, as indicated in the study, is the inheritance experience for women is "often lonely and confusing," when it could be collaborative and empowering.
What's the solution? The research points to factors that may be missing in the wealth transfer experience for women: The need to create a specific, holistic plan for the successful transfer of wealth — a plan which takes into account the possibility that a woman may be solely responsible for managing family wealth at some point in her life.
Here are three ways to address those "missing factors" and help prepare for a successful wealth transfer.
Open the lines of communication
Before setting a plan in place, it can be beneficial for a family to have conversations and dialogues about family wealth, and to consider the range of "what-if" scenarios. Ideally these discussions will go beyond numbers or assets, and address the reasons and values behind any intended plans and the legacy the family hopes to leave: the goal is to set the groundwork for the plan.A third-party facilitator may be helpful in providing perspective and experience. The facilitator can also be useful in ensuring that all involved parties are included in the discussion.
"These can be emotional and difficult conversations," says Kaufman, "And it can be hard to find a time that seems appropriate to have them. But the risk is that if beneficiaries are left to their own devices, without input about the plans for these funds, that family disharmony is created — or even, in the worst case, that the parties turn to litigation to resolve disputes."
Perhaps most importantly, the communication of the values that underpin your wealth transfer plans can help reduce difficult conversations and uncertainty when a transfer takes place.
"An explicit conversation about your plans for wealth transfers allows families to set expectations and discuss family values," says Kaufman.
"For example, if philanthropy is one of your personal goals for your financial legacy, this is your chance to ensure your beneficiaries are up-to-date about your intentions and the values they're based on."
In some families, assets might be set aside for charitable purposes or for other causes, such as for a bequest to a religious institution. Other situations might involve blended families, bringing an additional layer of complexity to estate planning discussions. As women who inherit the family wealth may be required to implement the plans developed, including them in the planning process from the start can help mitigate family disharmony later.
Integrating feedback into your plan
After feedback is gathered from your initial family conversations, develop a draft plan or outline with a wealth or estate professional. It provides the opportunity to seek and receive comprehensive professional guidance in developing your plans — a step many women who have received wealth transfers say was missing for them.
It also allows those potentially impacted by your plans to "weigh in" with any concerns or questions — for example if a beneficiary doesn't feel savvy enough to handle a large financial responsibility, part of your plan can include a provision for professional guidance or the institution of a trust structure.
This step can give you insight into any clarifications or modifications your family may need before you move to finalize your plans.
Communicate your plan
Formally confirm your intentions with your family and any other beneficiaries. How this step takes place will depend on your preferences and the knowledge level and preferences of those receiving the wealth.
If your family members are geographically close, an in-person meeting may be appropriate, whether that meeting is formal, such as facilitated by a professional, or informal, such as at a family dinner. If your family lives in different cities or countries, written copies of your plans might need to be distributed by mail or electronically.
By keeping the lines of communication open and working through a formalized process, the transfer of wealth need not be a "lonely and confusing" time for women, but a time of opportunity.