Ron Weiner remembers sitting his two girls down to discuss the amount of money they stood to inherit. One was in college and the other in high school at the time, and they wanted nothing to do with the conversation.
“They didn’t want to hear about it,” said Mr. Weiner, chairman and president of Perelson Weiner, a certified public accounting firm. “They weren’t prepared to receive that information at those ages — it wasn’t in their sense of what was relevant to them.”
That was 20 years ago. He and his wife, Vicki, who owned an investor relations firm and now runs a nonprofit that lends money to women, have persisted each year in trying to educate their daughters about the wealth that they will inherit. But it has been a slow process.
“We’re getting closer,” said Mr. Weiner, 71. “The thought of being left all of this money is outside of their frame of reference. You can’t force-feed it.”
Even so, Mr. and Mrs. Weiner are doing something that many affluent people find very difficult to undertake: talking to their heirs about the millions they will have to manage after their parents are gone.
Two-thirds of the 57 people polled by Wilmington Trust, a bank founded by the du Pont family in the early 20th century and now owned by M&T Bank, said they were “apprehensive about sharing inheritance details.” All participants had a net worth of more than $20 million, and only a tenth of them said they had given complete information about inheritance to their heirs — apparently for fear of dampening their work ethic.
Their rationale did not seem unreasonable, at least on the face of it. But they were also concerned with heirs being too young to grasp what would come to them — and with their children deciding to pause their lives as they waited for wealth that might not appear.
To be fair, talking about money with anyone is a famously difficult task. Old money, historically, has been stereotyped as having a Brahmin disdain for such a gauche topic. And then there is the secrecy shrouding what people earn, particularly among colleagues.
But the scale of wealth that some children stand to inherit is life changing. Not talking about it borders on parental negligence.
And yet, there is reticence, even though children — and their friends — can go online and determine the value of their family’s homes, cars and vacation destinations.
“Of course your kids know how much money you have,” said Lee Miller, regional director of the New York office for Glenmede Trust, which caters to the wealthy. “Parents are willfully disbelieving that their children are not connecting all the dots.”
Bill LaFond, president of the family wealth division at Wilmington Trust, is more sympathetic to the challenges families face. “I don’t view apprehension as they don’t want to have those conversations,” he said. “In many ways, they’re appropriately cautious. Heirs know there’s money. But once you have that conversation and disclose how much money is there, it’s an irrevocable conversation.”
Joel Treisman, a family wealth coach who leads a monthly group for Tiger 21, an investment club for people with more than $10 million, said he had been left to surmise his family’s wealth on his own. He is a descendant of the Cullman family, whose wealth came from Philip Morris tobacco, and also the Lehman banking family.
“Despite a Stanford degree and a Yale M.B.A. with all these financial management courses, I was totally unprepared to be an inheritor — and that was in my 40s,” Mr. Treisman said. “There was no family preparation. It was delegated to the family trust-and-estate lawyer to send me a letter on my 21st birthday to talk to me about wealth that was going to revert to me outright.”
Given the size of the home of his grandfather, Joseph Cullman III, he knew there was wealth. But he said neither his grandparents nor parents discussed what it meant.
Jared Goss, whose mother is part of the du Pont family and whose uncle is Porter J. Goss, the former congressman and director of the Central Intelligence Agency, said he never remembered his family having a conversation about inheritance. But he did remember learning about the extent of his family’s wealth in elementary school in San Francisco.
“All school kids in San Francisco then were very into the Guinness Book of World Records, and I remember at one point someone pointed out the fact that the du Pont family was the richest family in the world,” he said. “I remember laughing at that, thinking we’re just normal people.”
No adviser counsels silence. But Mr. LaFond does advise families to make sure that everyone is ready to receive the information, and that there is a level of trust between parent and child. This may mean speaking more generally about inheritance or about family commitments that can be met only because of excess wealth.
Mr. Treisman said that with his own three children, he has focused on gratitude, privilege and being philanthropic. One goal is not to replicate his experience at his first job.
“There was a time when my salary and my job earned me very little money compared with being responsible for my inheritance,” he said. “When you’re earning $19,000 but responsible for managing $1 million or more of assets, it’s difficult.”
Mr. Treisman continued: “Not knowing about this early, about the financial implications, can be disastrous. In my case, I did not really think that much about it to be honest.”
Mr. Goss said that his parents, while not forthcoming about exact dollar amounts, told him he would have enough family financial support to pursue whatever career he wanted. And he did, working for 20 years as a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Wealth advisers said there are basic differences between families who made money in one generation and those who have been inheriting wealth generation after generation. The big one is having systems in place to govern how the money gets disbursed; another is an emphasis on the family’s shared history of a set of expectations. While these aren’t substitutes for a frank discussion, they serve as a backstop or guide.
Ms. Miller of Glenmede Trust said that parents who have made a lot more money in their lifetime face a more daunting challenge than just revealing what their children will inherit.
“As they were making these huge amounts of money, they were not thinking about how to model behavior with their young children,” she said of the first wave of hedge fund and private equity managers, who are now in their 60s and 70s. “Do they get everything they want? Or do they know they have to choose between that candy bar and this one?”
Holding off discussions about money until much later, when children reach their 40s or 50s, has its own complications. When parents are silent, adult children tend to poke around for details — to their parents’ annoyance, said Maria Elena Lagomasino, chief executive and managing partner of WE Family Offices, which helps about 70 families manage their money.
Adult children “really don’t know until they’re told exactly what they’re going to get — or not going to get,” Ms. Lagomasino said. And until then, adult children worry about what their parents will pay for, or if they might be cut off from support.
Early in her career at Chase Bank, Ms. Lagomasino got to know David Rockefeller. “The Rockefellers knew they had a lot of money, but their family talked to them about investing and service to the community,” she said. “They put money in the context of the family.”
She said Mr. Rockefeller told her, “My parents taught me the value of a dollar, whether I was spending it, earning it or giving it away.”
For families with far less wealth, not talking about money while still funding their children’s lifestyles can have a more detrimental effect. The parents could run out of money they will need in retirement.
Matt Papazian, founding partner and chief investment officer at Cardan Capital Partners in Denver, said he asks clients, “Do you want to downsize your own retirement to upsize your child’s current lifestyle?”
He counsels parents with good retirement savings, but not abundant wealth, to focus only on their children’s essential needs. “It’s a hard conversation for the adviser to have with the parent,” he said. “It’s also a hard conversation for the client to have with their children. But it’s got to happen.”
Mr. Weiner said he and his wife ask their children for a family meeting each year. In preparation for it, they ask their daughters — who are now in their 30s and married with children — to tell them how much detail they want about the family wealth. Such conversations invariably invoke discussions about mortality, which children may not want to have with their parents at any age.
“I get different responses to that, and in turn it causes me to calibrate what I’m going to share depending on where they are developmentally,” Mr. Weiner said. “The objective is to normalize the discussion so it’s not otherworldly. It’s our world.”