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Tom Deans, author of Willing Wisom joins us for this podcast.  

Do you have a will?  If you have a will, do you talk about what's in it with your family?  If these are interesting questions to you, then you'll want to join us on this podcast.

Some of the take aways you get are:

  • The importance of having a will.
  • Why family meetings keep your family together.
  • The importance in letting your children take their own path.
  • Why estate planning is about values as much or more than money.

Join us as Tom talks with us about these issues and more.

Podcast transcript:

Narrator:         Welcome to Sustainable Business Radio Show on podcast where you'll learn not only how to create a sustainable business but you’ll also learn the secrets of creating extraordinary value within your business and your life. The sustainable business is all about creating great outcomes. Here’s your host, certified financial planner, student, entrepreneur and private business expert, Josh Patrick.

Josh:                Today’s podcast features author Tom Deans. Tom has spent his life in and around private businesses. In his first book, Tom questions common wisdom about whether it's wise to give the family business to your children instead of having them buy it. In his second book, and the one we’ll be discussing today, Tom talks about the need for families to have deep conversations about the wishes of elders when it comes to estate planning. We’ll be learning about why having an annual family meeting leads to healthy family relationships that last for generations. So, let’s get right to it.

Hey Tom, how are you today?

Tom:                Josh, I'm very well. How are you?

Josh:                I'm great, thank you. So tell me, what’s Willing Wisdom all about and how did you end up writing it in the first place?

Tom:                Well, Josh, I think anyone who writes a book is trying to convince himself of an idea, not the reader, and that held true with my first book. And it certainly held true with the second book. I have been both an inheritor and I will give a significant estate. I, like anyone who has gone through that process, has really been a recipient of quite an amazing gift.

I come from a family where it has really a quite odd financial transparency. We have found it in our culture to not only have annual family meetings but even more regular meetings than that and bring lots of discussions and openness and transparency and kind of a Socratic approach to asking questions of our children and them of us as we age, and kind of strip away the kind of secrecy around finances and personal finances and money and who will inherit how much and when and what. And that’s really what Willing Wisdom is about. It’s a book that offers seven questions to help families bring some shape and form to that awkward, awkward conversation about money, aging and dying.

Josh:                I know you want people to buy the book but what would you think is the most important question out of the seven, people need to answer?

Tom:                Oddly enough, I think it’s the last question. It’s really a question that deals with last wishes which, on the surface, doesn’t look like a money question and it’s not but it is a question that I think that most families avoid. We know that 137 million American adults have no will. They have no legal will. We know that in the absence of a will, there is really lots of ambiguity around how someone’s life will be celebrated. In our family meetings, we deal with this head on. We have copies of our parents’ wills. They have copies of ours. There’s nothing that says, “I'm going to not pre-decease my parents.” We’ve just lots of sharing of our legal documents so that everyone kind of knows who the executors are, who will be in that position to weigh in and execute our wishes around our last wishes and how we want our lives celebrated.

It is unbelievable how families will tear themselves apart trying to figure out, in the absence of a will, how mom and dad’s life should be celebrated. It seems basic. It is often not the expensive family assets that divide family and sibling relationships after mom and dad die. It’s often emotional subjects like funerals and how last wishes are celebrated.

Josh:                Has your family delineated how you guys are going to do funerals and memorial services and end-of-life issues?

Tom:                Well, we have in great detail. As I've taken this book on the road and worked with either keynotes or working with individual families - typically significant families, it is absolutely amazing, you’d figure that billionaires have this stuff buttoned down. It is unbelievable. In fact, I would argue that the more wealth and assets that a family has accumulated, the more distance they’ve put between their family and their relationships around subjects like last wishes or advanced health care directives. How mom and dad want to be treated by healthcare professionals as they're aging and as they're losing control.

So again, you’d think that estate plans – the more wealth you have, the better plan you can buy, the better advisor you can buy? I think it’s quite the opposite. And we only have to look at some of the great figures in history, people like Bobby Kennedy who, when he takes a bullet for his country in 1968, is assassinated in Los Angeles. Good news, he’s got a will. Bad news, he’s got his brother John as the executor of that will who was of course assassinated in 1963. The rich, the famous, the powerful are prone to making some of the biggest mistakes in estate planning. It’s a great lesson for all of us that you can't buy these plans. We all have to work on them with our family, in relationship, in conversation - today while we're thinking clearly.

Josh:                This is interesting. You think that the more money somebody has, often, the less they talk to their family. Why do you think that’s true?

Tom:                Well, we know from the data that people who amass significant wealth are typically business owners. And the first rule of business is about control, right? So when you're the majority shareholder, whether you're a founder or not - if you're the controlling shareholder, you get to exercise control. That is what we learned and that is what teaches us about “how do we accumulate wealth?”

That very principle is often what creates great problems in estate plans. particularly as we age, we seem to think that control is at the center of the great estate plans when in fact it’s actually the relinquishing of control. So often, the people who don’t have much wealth, who had never had a culture of exercising control actually find giving up control pretty easy. The act of aging and dying is the ultimate loss of control. It’s where we rely on those which we forge deep relationships on trust and respect. Those folks have great depth. It’s familiar, this idea of relinquishing control. It’s the great business owners who have amassed great fortunes that the notion of control is ambivalent.

Josh:                So, for the people who are listening and might recognize that we're talking about have to be in control, think of themselves, what kind of advice would you give them?

Tom:                The great patriarchs and matriarchs, and I use those words knowing that many listeners will be unfamiliar with it, they have a clear sense of what that means. We've lost the cultural familiarity of what it means to be a great patriarch and matriarch. The great ones - the ones who have really led their generation to become an even greater dynastic family, have something in the family culture that gives them a signal at a point in time to create space around them for their progenies, especially their progeny, to not become just as good as them but in fact they take it upon themselves to make their progeny even better. There’s a graciousness and humility that drives this kind of wisdom. What they are teaching and preparing their heirs has something to do that transcends money. It is about ideas and creating a sense of children being whole and true to themselves to pursue that which is real to them.

In many cases, that is different than running the same family business. It means being, as I said, real. And sometimes that means taking the family in a different direction and taking different kinds of risks with family money. When we, as patriarchs and matriarchs, take away that space and suck all the oxygen out of their realm because of our own greatness and magnificence, we get the kind of family and legacies we deserve which are ones that collapse under the burden of trying to replicate what has already been.

Josh:                So, what you're saying or at least what I'm hearing you say is you really have to let the next generation take their own path and having that conversation make a richer life?

Tom:                I think so and I think that that seems pretty straightforward. But that being informed by a matriarch or patriarch, that shares just not only the wisdom of the life lessons that had gone well for the family but the hard part where someone, a family leader has pulled up significantly short or has made a serious mistake. Those are the greatest gifts of all. Those are the pulls of wisdom that helps the next generation avoid the same mistakes and to become better. I mean, that’s what I alluded to earlier. It’s those kinds of gifts which have nothing to do with money or clever tax plans or legal structures but everything to do with, as I said, a culture of learning and a culture of teaching and hoping for more. And hoping for someone quite frankly to continue your work and take it in that different direction.

Josh:                So Tom, how would you get that conversation started? It seems to be pretty challenging to me.

Tom:                Well, I think it is hard and this is where I have great hope in the world of advisors – particularly sophisticate advisors, first of all, who hold family meetings. If families have the idea of a family meeting is not a natural one to a family, to bring that imperative, to hold the family meeting - to resource a family meeting as advisors, to bring the kinds of questions that start these conversations, to bring transparency. That is huge. I think this just such a culturally difficult conversation to start that I just see the role of advisor. By the way Josh, I'm not an advisor. I don’t do that work. But there are thousands of qualified people like yourself that can do that kind of work, that can start those conversations and shape those conversations and bring an intergenerational view of wealth management. I think family has always been at the center of wealth management. It is not about getting 12% return on invested capital. It is about getting a good return on your investment money but also wrapping some purpose around that surplus wealth on death so that it releases potential in the next generation. Who’s starting that conversation? It’s not families. It’s advisors - the best advisors.

Josh:                What advice would you give to an advisor on how to approach this subject if they feel uncomfortable doing so?

Tom:                Well, I think the best way to do it is to talk about their own experience. And I've got to tell you Josh, I was speaking in Chicago not long ago, about six weeks ago, and I had a room full of financial advisors. Half of the advisors in that room did not have a will themselves so they are incapable of drawing upon their narrative to share their own difficulties in starting these conversations with their own family. They can't relate to their clients because they haven’t done their own work. So, this is absolutely crucial. The advisors need to share their own personal struggles in starting these family conversations around money, aging and dying. That’s where they gain trust, respect and credibility.

Josh:                So what you're saying is, first, advisors better get themselves a will and all of the other stuff that goes along with it and, second, they really need to be having their own family conversations?

Tom:                Well, absolutely, and to go the next step which is the controversial part of the book and that is that it’s not just enough to write a will. It’s really all about reaching out and writing the will collaboratively with your intended beneficiaries. I don’t understand how we can write wills without seeking the knowledge and wisdom from our recipients – our intended beneficiaries. It makes no sense to me why we hoard our wisdom and our decisions and leave it to when we're dead and our beneficiaries finding out what happens, how it goes down in some austere lawyer’s office when people have lots of questions and these conversations are irretrievable – the person’s dead. It’s not just enough to write the will. It’s about collaborating on that will and sharing the contents of it while you're thinking clearly.

Josh:                Interesting, something which I find interesting – you might have an idea of how. Mom and dad write a will. They bring their kids and have a conversation. And the kids kind of shake their heads “yes” with what mom and dad are saying but you know the kids really are not in favor or agree with what mom and dad are doing. How do you bring this stuff out and have a positive conversation about that?

Tom:                Well, all I can talk about is our own experience. We use a series of questions in our own family, loosely, sometimes more formally. And I should make the point right now, Josh, that some of our best family meetings aren’t in oak-paneled board rooms with people wearing suits and ties with our lawyers, everyone and our accountants and all of our advisors present. Some of the best family meetings we have are around a camp fire at the cottage. They're informal.

We have someone saying, “I want to bring everyone up to date. But before I want to talk about my will, I have a couple of questions.” And then “Hey kids, how do you think I earn my money? How do you think we've come to be where we are with our finances?” And listen to how kids respond. Seek their ideas. Ask them what they would do with their inheritance. Ask them how much money they need to satisfy their material wants. Ask them about their philanthropic desires. Find alignment. Find areas where there’s disagreement. Explore both of them.

It’s not about everyone nodding their head and kumbaya. This is hard, difficult stuff. But let me add some perspective, Josh, there are worse problems in this world than dividing wealth. These are the kinds of problems we want and need. These are often problems so often we lose perspective. And, again, I would turn to the advisors to bring that perspective to families who are talking about this stuff.

And if kids are ill-prepared and I've met them. I've met kids who if they inherit $100,000, they'll be dead in 30 days because of their addiction. So, why not explore that and find out what kind of instruments, financial products and structures are in place to leave wealth that will release potential when children are healthy – if they become healthy. Similarly, I've seen kids inherit $100 million and turn it into $1 billion because quite frankly they're smarter and harder working than dad. And there you have it, the two ends. The two ends and extremes of the continuum.

But aren’t we curious and shouldn’t we be curious about what we have in our own family? Do we have that kid that has an addiction where money will release a destructive force? Or do we have kids where wealth will release potential? I'm curious. And I think it’s always moving and I think it’s dynamic.

Josh:                I would agree with that 100%. So, most advisors probably don’t have the skills to have this deep, deep conversation. What would you recommend to them?

Tom:                There are dozens and dozens of books on the transition of family wealth but you can make this an academic discussion or you can make it experiential. And I think the real take away here is - advisors, don’t ask your clients to do anything you're not prepared to do yourself. Go through this process of discussing with your own family - the issues. That your clients may have more wealth, there are more zeroes, same issues. Same spin on the same issues. We are all concerned about our children learning about how much wealth we have.

But I can tell you right now, we have two kids in college and they're almost in their last years of college. Both our kids, they have copies of our will and both know exactly what our personal net worth is. They know our advisor. Our advisor is their advisor. And my advisor is my father’s advisor.

We bring a kind of an intergenerational view of our wealth. Our advisors have a complete holistic intergenerational view of how our money was earned which by the way was very slowly with taking lots of risks and it was never a straight line up. And that’s important to our family, that someone – our advisors, have a kind of long historical view of our wealth. I think our advisors are the keepers of our family stories and we count on them to tell those stories going forward.

Josh:                Okay, so we have about two minutes left, Tom, and what would be your number one piece of advice you would give a family about their wills?

Tom:                It would be that don’t try to write the perfect will and don’t view it as a static document. It is a living document. It is a document that can be changed. It is a document that almost certainly should be changed.

I view, along with my wife, our wills every year and there is almost not a year that goes by where something doesn’t change, either our financial situation. I've had my brother in and out of my will a couple of times not because my relationship has changed with him. He’s moved. He moved to the U.S. He moved back to Canada. So, as a guardian, that decision changes with his location.

It is unbelievable how much can change in a year. Material changes to people’s situations that have to be reflected in the will. And I can tell you that in the absence of that, when executors have pre-deceased - the person writing the will or—we all can pick executors who are much older than us. They often die or become incapacitated themselves. We have to keep these documents current.

My number one urging would be to review the will. Don’t view it as a morose, depressing document. View it as a document. The most important written word that you leave behind that informs people about what you really believed and thought about the relationship and about your hope for humanity.

Josh:                So, Tom, if somebody wanted to find your book, how would they go about doing that?

Tom:                It is as easy as clicking on www.willingwidsom.com.

Josh:                Well, that’s pretty great. We're at the end of our time. I thank you so much for talking with us today. As always, it was fascinating stuff.

Tom:                Josh, the pleasure was mine.

Josh:                Thank you.

                        You’ve been listening to Sustainable Radio Podcast where we talk about what you need to do with your business if it was to be or 100 years from now. If you like what you heard and want more information, please contact me at 802‑846‑1264 ext 2 or visit us on our website at www.stage2planning.com or you can send me an e-mail at jpatrick@stage2planning.com.

This is Josh Patrick and thanks for listening. I hope to see you soon for another edition of The Sustainable Business.

Securities and investment advisory services are offered through NFP Advisory Services, LLC – member of FINRA/SIPC.

NFP Advisory Services, LLC is not affiliated with Stage2Planning Partners.

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