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Is Your Spouse in Trouble?

by Buddy Thomas

Best laid plans don’t always work

When her spouse Gary died at age 54 from a terminal illness, though grieving, Barbara felt financially secure. Before he passed away, they established a trust to assure Barbara would have the resources to run the business they had built together and maintain her lifestyle.

As a precautionary measure the couple named a close friend and former attorney as trustee – someone they both liked and trusted. Initially things went well. Then the business took a turn for the worse and Barbara called upon the trustee for assistance. Though trust assets were sufficient to weather the storm, the trustee thought otherwise and limited her access.

After a long economic downturn and months of stress with nowhere to turn, Barbara sold her home. It still wasn’t enough. In the end, she lost the house, the business, the business income, and her relationship with the trustee.

This all too typical estate plan failure changed Barbara’s life forever.

Good outcomes are the exception

Disastrous financial consequences are common among families in transition. Family wealth is often dissipated or destroyed due to the loss of a key person and the survivor’s lack of familiarity with the many skills necessary to manage an ongoing family enterprise.

Professional advisors (CPA’s, attorneys, brokers, etc.) give the best advice possible within their areas of specialization. However, few are familiar enough with the family dynamics, or in a position to give the comprehensive guidance called for to make a smooth successful changeover after the death of a spouse. They do what they can but aren’t privy to the family’s big picture.

The surviving spouse is on their own to pull it all together and make major final decisions. Expecting a surviving spouse to simply pick up where the other left off does not work for a number of reasons:

  • Relationships – Both spouses rarely have the same trust and rapport with their advisors as the one who interacts with them the most.
  • Familiarity – When the less active spouse takes over, effectiveness and efficiency are naturally reduced.
  • Independence – Both spouses may have agreed on goals, but the survivor will invariably have their own ideas and manner of doing things.
  • No crystal ball – It’s impossible to predict future events (health issues, family differences, business demands, economic conditions, law changes, and countless other issues) that impact decision making.

A surviving spouse faces all this while experiencing what psychologists call the most stressful event of all: the death of a spouse. Complicating matters further, during the average grieving period (18 months), research indicates a much higher likelihood of impaired judgement and inability to focus.

What the wealthiest families do

To provide for the continuity of family wealth through such times of extreme change, the world’s wealthiest families create and maintain a dedicated third party “family office”. They employ an experienced staff with systems to provide the family the support they need to make the very best wealth decisions possible, under all circumstances.

Bringing up the idea of establishing a “family office” for families with less than a few hundred million dollars in assets usually generates comments such as: “Family offices are only for the super-rich”; “They’re very expensive to set up, and even more expensive to operate”; or, “A full-blown family office is far more than my family needs… it’s overkill”.

These statements and concerns are valid only if you are envisioning a traditional “single family office” model with an in-house staff that does everything from paying bills to walking dogs.

What you can do

Today’s “multi-family offices” are much more accessible, affordable, nimble, and customizable than any “single family office”. They serve numerous families simultaneously and operate efficiently and effectively.

Modern family offices exist to help you plan, enrich and grow your family wealth in good times, and protect and clean up in the aftermath of bad; and, they can keep your family prepared for the numerous varieties of life transitions that will inevitably occur. A well run family office will scale services tailored to your needs and budget.

A proficient family office can be expected to pay for itself (usually in the first year) by saving you time and money that is now unnecessarily spent, avoiding foreseeable dangers, and identifying viable opportunities.

A family office does not replace your current advisory team; it compliments, facilitates, and enhances it. Professional advisors (attorneys, CPAs, investment managers, bankers, etc.) work better together with a family office coordinating their collaboration and eliciting their best ideas.

Each specialist gets to apply their unique ability, interacting with other members of the team and communicating in an organized way resulting in more precise documents and plans that are much more cohesive.

A team of advisors orchestrated by a central family office with a common vision of your family’s goals becomes a concerted effort to support you, your spouse, and your children through adversity, and positions you in a way to avoid danger and capitalize on opportunity when either presents itself.

A plan that works

Brenda and her husband Ed engaged a multi-family office to help them operate and grow their family enterprise, and to be there for the transition in the event of one spouse’s death. Though they had no children together, Ed had two adult sons from a previous marriage who were included in their estate plan.

A few years into the plan Ed, who played the lead role in operating the family enterprise, had a stroke and passed away. With their family office in place and Brenda’s experience working with them, she was able to step in and take control of the decision-making, even though she was grieving.

While settling Ed’s estate, tension developed between Brenda and her step- sons. For some reason, trusting relationships between them while Ed was alive became more guarded, suspicious, and contentious: early warning signs of a discourse which could tear the family apart and destroy the family’s wealth.

To get to the root of the trouble, Brenda called a family meeting facilitated by their family office. With everyone present (including the estate attorney), the venue and dialogue allowed each to air their concerns. They discovered a misunderstanding by the children based on a statement Ed had made years earlier when the estate was assumed to be much larger than when he died.

The children, who thought they were being shorted, realized the truth and the conversation quickly turned back to more productive family matters.

Not all family offices are created equal

When considering family offices, be sure to select one that is and has a history as a competent fiduciary; one that demonstrates prioritizing their clients’ needs before their own.

When evaluating a family office, it is also important to ask:

  • When will I see a return on my investment? A family office should not be an expense, but an investment that returns much more to you that you invest (ROI) by helping you make profitable financial decisions, avoiding costly mistakes, and eliminating unnecessary taxes and fees.
  • How efficient is it? A quality family office is goals oriented, focusing on your most important issues and simplifying decision making with measurable results rather than offering numerous, non-essential, concierge-type services.
  • What is its breadth? Many family offices are strong in one area and weak in others (accounting, legal, banking, investing, etc.). An effective one is comprehensive, supporting the planning and administration of cash flow, asset management, and a family-values-driven estate plan.
  • Where is its focus? In order to assure objectivity look for a family office that is first and foremost a family office, not an investment company, bank, accounting, or law firm offering family office services. Conflicts of interests make it difficult to offer as an additional service.

Family wealth prudently handled has the potential to be a source of joy and confidence for your entire family. It can give each member the freedom to grow and flourish in their own way at their own natural pace. A family office today not only assists in making your family more financially efficient, it can also go a long way toward bringing your family closer together.

Family offices don’t just happen

. As more and more families realize the time and money savings, big-picture decision making, and peace of mind advantages of engaging a modern day family office, the demand for the service has outpaced the supply. After all, where can you find:

  • A reliable firm with a proven track record that will be there for you today and for your family tomorrow if you are not around, with
  • An experienced staff who come to know you and your family well enough that they can support you in making your important family wealth decisions; and,
  • A comprehensive planning system that works, is easy to understand, and flexible enough to adapt to your family’s needs in good times and bad; that,
  • Includes and coordinates your current advisors and can help find those advisors you may now need but have yet to meet?

It’s important to know that such firms exist. However, identifying the one that is right for you is simply not that easy. You won’t hear them knocking on your door. Developing the kind of trust you will need doesn’t work like that.

You may want to begin by asking the advisors you already know and trust who they might recommend. Then it’s up to you to check them out to get a feel for how they’ll fit.

Take your time. Relationships like this are rare, but like everything else of value, whatever you have to do to establish and build it is well worth the effort.

Buddy Thomas is Founder and Chief Planning Officer of Superior Planning. He can be reached at