This is War
“I want to declare a war,” I said half-seriously, “on all the organizations, ministries and financial planners encouraging people not to trust their children.” I had thought about it for years but never said it that way until a group of foundation executives asked me recently what I wanted to focus on next year. It’s true and I don’t quite know how to go about it (having never declared a war before) but I would like you to enlist. Like any war, we’ll figure it out as we go.
I first started thinking about this 15 years ago after reading “Esau’s Delusion: Moral Consequences of the Estate Tax,” an essay written by Adam Pruzan. He wrote the essay in response to a growing movement of wealthy, well-intentioned parents announcing they were not leaving wealth to their children because it would only ruin them. A favorite saying at the time from broadcasting magnate Jim Rogers was, “Leaving children with wealth is like leaving them a case of psychological cancer.”
What once was a radical thought has become almost mainstream, and many organizations with vested interests have found it to their advantage to perpetuate the assumption that wealth left to children is not only certain to ruin them but the money can be much better cared for by people outside the family completely. It is what Pruzan called the “anti-inheritance ideology,” which encourages parents who have accumulated wealth to guard their children from certain disaster. But its consequences can be more insidious that that. It leads to mistrusting their children.
Pruzan writes, “The Judeo-Christian ethic…sees private wealth as a sacred trust. The sense of stewardship can and should motivate large-scale charity on the part of the wealthy, but even this philanthropic obligation – to borrow a term from the environmentalists – should be practiced in a sustainable manner. That is, even charitable giving requires heirs in order to fulfill its purposes. Unfortunately, however, too many of America’s wealthiest men are following the anti-inheritance ideology rather than the example of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob…
“Inheritance is the glue that binds generations to one another. Disrupting the transmission of our material inheritance will badly erode, if not altogether destroy, our ability to transmit a spiritual legacy.”
Obviously, it is not enough to simply pass wealth to your children without proper preparation, but if we are encouraged to assume it is better to trust others than our own family, then we will do little to prepare our family for their unique responsibility. We will spend more time with professionals creating strategies for managing wealth and philanthropy than teaching our own children. The commitment to passing wealth to your children takes hard work and must begin early or they will only see wealth as a lifestyle and not a responsibility passed to the next generation, as taught in Scripture.
Pruzan encourages us to bring along our children as apprentices at an early age: “The larger and more awesome the responsibility, the more the need for a long and comprehensive apprenticeship. And what could be more comprehensive than raising a child as one’s heir from early youth? One could well find their best and most natural heirs right across from them at the breakfast table, in the person of his own children.”
Being an apprentice doesn’t mean slavish compliance or never expressing differences. I’ve written before that when my father died, he left my two sisters and me three trust funds. Nothing could have been further from his mind when we were young. In fact, there were more than a few times growing up when we had heated discussions about the role of money in our lives, the values we used in making decisions, and even organizations and causes to which we gave. That is why I was so surprised when Dad told me about the “trust” funds. How could he trust when we were so different? Isn’t trust being sure the next generation will comply with donor intent? Maybe not. Maybe what Dad had come to over the years was the confidence to trust without the necessity of agreement.
As I look at my own adult children and grandchildren now, I find myself thinking about the basis of trust in our family. Is it agreement and the promise that they will do exactly as I would? Or, is it something deeper than that and something that will one day allow me to say to them, “I have come to trust you – even if we disagree – and these funds are an expression of that.” What a gift.