‘Soft’ side of estate planning in the family business

By Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S.

Most entrepreneurs are so caught up in the passion of their enterprise that they rarely plan ahead for the wealth that will accumulate. Although there is a desire to make money, only a select few entrepreneurs actually make money their goal. Rather wealth is a byproduct of having done well. Furthermore, most entrepreneurs did not grow up in wealthy families, so they don’t have role models for managing their money or planning for the continuity of the family business. As a result when it comes time to develop an estate plan, many entrepreneurs are at a loss for where to start, or to even know they should start.

It would seem that the logical place to start is with your attorney, CPA, investment advisor or banker. However, while all of these professionals should play a part in the development of your estate plan eventually, the first stop on the way to a successful estate plan is the psychologist’s office to deal with the soft side of the family business. Many an estate plan has been left undeveloped because the interpersonal relationships in the family were counter to the best interests of the business.

It is important to understand that the most important part of our lives are spent not as individuals but in relationships. And the relationships that we hold most dear are those of our family (whether or not we hold them fondly or with resentment). Within the context of a family business this fact is quite evident. Regardless of how successful, famous or old the family business, the family still comes first. Understandably the system that has been around the longest has priority.

Gerald Le Van, an attorney explains this concept from the perspective of the changes that have occurred in the business world in the latter half of the 20th century. The Industrial Revolution that lead to the technological revolution created the philosophy that the business world was like a clock, where successful enterprises were machines, conceived by engineers and monitored by accountants, where the goal was maximum industrial productivity at minimum cost, and workers were a collection of individuals or parts of the machine. Today, however, the business world is not envisioned like a clock, but like a rain forest.

According to Le Van, “Enterprises are no longer machines, but ecosystems whose fitness to survive is determined by their relationships to other organizational ecosystems in the rain forest world. Enterprises are no longer collections of individuals, but systems.”

Within the world of family business the rain forest model is very effective. Family firms are a system of family members, in-laws, shareholders and stakeholders. These systems interact with vendors, customers, employees, and the commercial community at large. It is a delicate balance to maintain a successful business and a successful family enterprise when the systems are integrated into a family firm. The stress on the system becomes even greater when it is time to develop a plan for the continuity of the business and the family, and a fair apportionment of the wealth. If the family does not have mature and healthy interpersonal relationships, the process of estate planning can be costly, painful and unsuccessful.

Consider for example a CEO who is about to retire. He has two daughters and his instruction to his attorney is to develop a plan that gives each daughter an equal share. One daughter has worked for years for her father, helping him to manage his investments. She has proven to be a leader and visionary, much like her father. The CEO wants her to succeed him in managing the business because he believes in her competence. The other daughter has never worked for her father but has benefited indirectly from the growth and wealth of the business. Although she has never been interested in the management of the business before, now that her father is retiring, she and her husband want to take a more active position in the company. The first daughter doesn’t mind continuing as the president of the company. In fact she believes she deserves the position. But she is not pleased about her sister’s new interest, nor her father’s decision to treat them equally. Where this family once got along just fine, a new problem is growing that they never had to face before. How would you are your advisors handle this “hot potato”?

Consider the entrepreneurial couple, who for decades have successfully founded and managed three enterprises. They have sent two children through college and now one of them works for the family business. The husband, now 58, would like to retire to the new vacation home they have recently built in a resort community. However, the wife is ten years younger and is not ready to retire. She is still excited by the challenge of managing their investments. Furthermore, she is grooming for the presidency, her son by a previous marriage. She would like to stay on long enough to see him well established in the leadership of the business. There are more than business challenges that this couple faces. Will the marriage withstand one working while the other retires? Will the husband trust that the new president will be trained well by his wife? How do other family members feel who are not related to the wife’s son?

Consider the attorney who must advise his client on an estate plan. The attorney and his client, a CEO of a national corporation, have always trusted each other and seldom had a conflict. The attorney has always known that his client is alcoholic, but the alcoholism never interfered in their dealings, even though it did cause great personal tragedy for the CEO (i.e., a divorce and estranged children). Now, however the attorney is in conflict over the advice he must give his client. The CEO wants to place in the presidency the only child who is not estranged from him. Unfortunately this child is alcoholic too and has never held a responsible position within the company. The CEO is ignoring other possible successors, such as loyal executives who are not family members. The attorney appears to be in a no-win situation. If the attorney says nothing, the CEO may proceed with a plan that will ruin the company. If the attorney confronts a non-recovering alcoholic with the foolishness of his plan, he may lose a valuable client. In either case there is no healthy solution.

To create an estate plan that truly integrates the success of the family and the firm, it is necessary to seek the help of a psychologist who understands the soft side of families and particularly those families who are in business together. Cleaning up root interpersonal problems can mean the difference between the development of a meaningful estate plan or the development of increased family conflict. For example, with the help of a psychologist, the father with two daughters learned that “fair” was more appropriate than “equal” when it came to dividing the wealth and the business with his daughters. The entrepreneurial couple learned that their marriage could survive the transition of the wife’s son to the presidency if they developed a clear buy-in for the son. Fortunately for the CEO of the national corporation, his son went into alcohol treatment after a serous auto accident. The CEO participated in family therapy at the treatment program, which forced him to look at his own untreated alcoholism. He eventually could see how he was letting his alcoholism make business decisions that were neither sound for the business, nor his family.

If you have worked hard to create an enterprise you can be proud of and if you want to create a legacy to pass onto your children and grandchildren, first evaluate the soft side of your family system for any unresolved issues that could spring up and bring the whole system down, during the process of estate planning. Also be prepared to deal with problems that never would have surfaced except for the need to discuss money matters with family. Then take these concerns and realizations to the psychologist, the professional uniquely trained to help with untangling family knots and reweaving a healthy family/business tapestry.

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