Why, When and How to Hold a Family Meeting

John Stephens, MD, MBA, CFA, CFP®

Jul 8, 2022

One of our jobs as financial advisors is to preserve and protect clients’ wealth. Even more important at TCI is to help preserve and protect assets that are far more precious than money: family relationships, a treasured heritage and the hopes and dreams of family members, old and young. Secrecy around wealth can be dangerous and saying “no” can be agonizing for a parent. Having these conversations can be daunting, however, they are also important for the financial well-being of you and your loved ones.

That’s why TCI is a proponent of family meetings. We encourage almost all our clients to consider it. A few clients may decide they aren’t comfortable with the notion, and probably never will be. For others, it is a bold but intriguing idea, one they might warm to over time after sorting through complicated feelings about money and family dynamics. Some clients are all in and promptly circle a date on the calendar.

Set Open Communication Expectations Early

In my family, we have taken the concept of the family meeting to heart. We started when our daughters were very young; the oldest was around 15. Our five daughters now range in age from 17 to 28. Every year around Thanksgiving, for example, we get together specifically to discuss the importance of helping others.

Then, more pragmatically, we talk to the girls about how much money we could afford to give that year and how to divide it among deserving causes and charities. My wife, Kelly, and I made it clear everyone’s opinion matters when it comes to our family’s charity budget. Even the youngest children have a say in the decisions.  

The first year, Robyn, our youngest daughter and a passionate dog-lover, expressed concern about neglected, abused or abandoned dogs. More specifically, she wanted to help golden retrievers like our family dog, Thomas. So, after that first meeting, we researched nonprofit dog rescue groups with Robyn, and the entire family later voted to approve a $2,000 donation to a local volunteer organization dedicated to taking in goldens in need.

Through the years, our family meetings have evolved as our daughters have grown. They are fully absorbed in getting ready to or going to college or building their careers. While we still involve them in discussions about charitable giving, our meetings have broadened to include other significant issues, such as planning time together because family time is a sacred, valued treasure for our family. As our girls grow, it is important to Kelly and me to be mindful about creating a place where we can gather together.

Kelly and I expect to have a lot more family meetings in years to come as our girls mature and, hopefully, start their own families. Some will be fun and lighthearted like planning our time together. Others will be more difficult like how to handle issues around health challenges or aging. We’ve fostered a family culture of open communication since the girls were very young and we consider ourselves fortunate to have this in our family.

The levels of communication that we experience in our family required work and have evolved over the years into what they are today. Frankly, I look forward to seeing what they’re going to develop into throughout our lives. Doing this work has had a profound impact on me and I love sharing this journey with clients. As an advisor, I’ve seen the devastating impacts of communication breakdowns between parents and parents and their children. Unfortunately, it can get downright nasty. However, at TCI we emphasize the importance of open communication so it never gets to this point.

Find the “Why?” Behind Your Family Meeting

Your TCI Team can facilitate a series of purposeful conversation over time among your family members. These early conversations can take place in stages beginning, most commonly, when children are in their 20s. Topics might begin with basic inheritance concepts such as wills and trusts then move on to more sensitive subjects such as retirement plans and charitable donations.

Actual numbers probably aren’t as imperative at this stage. More important is the philosophy behind the decisions you are making for yourself and the family. Early on, you will want to talk plainly about family values and the family history that shaped those values. It’s also important to talk about how you want to spend money and, with some specificity, how you don’t want to spend money.

Maybe that means you want to create a college funding plan for your grandchildren or great-grandchildren. Maybe you want to purchase a family retreat in the mountains so that generations to come will have a place to gather and foster family closeness. Maybe you want to help your children buy their first homes by providing low interest loans. Or it could mean that you make it clear that you are not going to financially support high-risk business ventures or extravagant hobbies.

Family Meetings Will Change as Your Needs Change

As your children mature, typically into their 30s and 40s, the conversations may get more detailed with discussions about specific assets such as stocks, bonds and real estate and how they are being managed. Once you’ve built a foundation of trust and openness around money within the family, you can address thornier topics such as end-of-life planning and creating legacies. These conversations typically accelerate when clients are in their 50s or early 60s–before retirement, before the arrival of grandchildren or before any health issues arise.

We also understand that life starts to look different on the far side of 60, even more so after 70 and especially after 80. So, thoughtfully and respectfully, we’ll continue to raise the question regularly about a family meeting with clients. This is also when financial planning begins to morph into something bigger and more meaningful: crafting a vision for a family mission, complete with the resources to ensure the goals and aspirations can be achieved. Ambitious? Yes, but achievable.

Limit Emotions and Emphasize Communication

We emphasize the importance of the family meeting because we want to minimize opportunities where heightened emotions can lead to poor decision making and have potentially damaging effects on a family. Your money will get passed on, no doubt, but we want to avoid it carrying unhealthy baggage, mistrust and resentment at all costs. If it gets to this point, you’re not leaving a gift for the generations, you’re leaving a burden.

That’s where your advisor can be helpful. Sometimes, it takes an outsider to discern the fine line between necessary privacy and obsessive secrecy. It’s an undertaking that demands a lot of sensitivity and patience. We’ll never force a family meeting or dictate an agenda. Your TCI Advisor will work with you to create an agenda and facilitate conversations that are appropriate for your family and your stage of life.

Determine Who Should be Present at the Meeting

Some clients prefer an informal setting for a family meeting. Their children may be coming to town for a holiday visit so arranging a casual lunch with your advisor at a quiet restaurant might work. Clients with big or complex financial situations may opt for a more formal meeting with children and, depending on their ages, grandchildren in one of our conference rooms. That meeting might include the full wealth advisory team, that is, not only their financial advisor but also their estate planning attorney and their CPA.

Who gets to come to a family meeting? Do you invite sons- or daughters-in law? What about unmarried partners of adult children, stepchildren or step-grandchildren? Your advisor can help you decide. This, too, is likely to evolve over time. Remember, a family meeting isn’t likely to be a one-time event.

We at TCI understand that family dynamics, at times, can be full of complexities. What’s most important is to start the process knowing that the family dynamics will evolve as you age and your children and grandchildren mature. Your openness about your financial journey also helps the next generation learn how to set financial goals and manage their own money more skillfully. Our goal at TCI is to promote healthy conversation around potentially touchy topics with the greatest respect for your family values.

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