Growing Up Rich Can Set Grandchildren Up for a Fall

Lifestyles of the rich and famous don't come cheap, and grandchildren who get used to the perks may be in for a rude awakening down the road. Here are two reasons why.

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Growing up in a family of significant wealth can be extraordinary. Splendid vacations, lavish homes, luxury cars and education at the best schools. It can also color your world with unrealistic expectations.

A grandchild in a family of multigenerational wealth, in which, let’s say, the grandparents have a $300 million estate, is likely to be exposed to an opulent lifestyle. The grandparents in this scenario may have multiple homes and cars, and a staff to manage many aspects of their lives, from cooks and chauffeurs to golf pros and attorneys. They may use private jet services, stay in the finest hotels and travel to exotic destinations. And the grandchild’s own parents are likely to live a privileged lifestyle too, although maybe slightly scaled back. Perhaps they own two homes and fly first class more than private jets but are still able to send their children to the schools of their choice, maintain a tony country club membership and take amazing vacations.

The trouble with all of this can be that the grandchildren in this scenario may see and experience all these privileges without a decent understanding of two key principles: taxation and division.

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How Taxation Can Eat Away at Wealth

Estate taxes are always a huge consideration for families of multigenerational wealth, because at the top bracket, the federal government is going to take 40% of the portion of the estate that falls over the estate tax exemption (currently $22.4 million per married couple) when it transfers from the grandparents to the parents. And when the estate transfers from the parents to the grandchildren, another 40% is going to be siphoned off. Then, in states like Pennsylvania, where we operate, there is a state inheritance tax (4.5%), which will be assessed in addition to the federal estate tax each time wealth transfers from one generation to the next.

So, if we were to consider the effect this would have on a $300 million estate in Pennsylvania, transferring from the grandparents to the parents, and then from the parents to the grandchildren, that $300 million could potentially lose over $190 million to taxes in two generations. Of course, there are many strategies you and your adviser can implement to move assets outside of your estate to minimize the impact of estate taxes. The intent here is to demonstrate what would result if no tax planning actions are taken.

What’s Worse: The Problem of Division

Perhaps even more impactful to the third-generation beneficiary than estate taxes is division. Let’s say in our example that the grandparents had three kids, and each of those second-generation kids had three kids of their own. To keeps things simple, assume the benefactors divide everything equally among their children when the assets are transferred to the next generation. This would result in the second-generation kids each receiving roughly $58 million, and the third-generation kids getting roughly $14 million (after estate and inheritance taxes are factored in). This is also assuming there is no loss of principal and that all of the assets go to the children.

If the matriarch and patriarch in the first generation want to leave a significant portion of their assets to a charitable organization, say $100 million off the top, this will have a significant impact on both the second- and third-generation beneficiaries.

The Bottom Line

Regardless of the specifics of the scenario, the central point is that while the third generation may have grown up around the $300 million estate lifestyle of their grandparents, and perhaps gotten used to it, the expectation that they will be able to live that same lifestyle is highly unrealistic. What is essential to prepare the third generation for what will still likely be a substantial inheritance is a straight-forward and honest discussion about the family’s estate planning strategy, philanthropic intentions, and their own role in supporting the family’s vision and legacy.

Transparent communication with the next generation will provide a realistic expectation about what they stand to inherit, as well as clarity about their responsibilities to make sure the transfer of wealth is successful.

When the next generation understands the impact of taxation and division, they will appreciate why there is a seismic shift from their grandparents’ lifestyle to their own. The value of this knowledge is that it illustrates the necessity of structuring their lifestyle in a way that is sustainable, so they will be in a position to transfer the family’s wealth to the fourth generation.


This article was written by and presents the views of our contributing adviser, not the Kiplinger editorial staff. You can check adviser records with the SEC or with FINRA.

Matthew Helfrich, CFP
Partner and President, Waldron Private Wealth

Matt Helfrich is President of Waldron Private Wealth, a boutique wealth management firm located just outside Pittsburgh, Pa. He leads Waldron's strategic vision, brand and value proposition and overall culture of the firm. Since 2002, Helfrich has served in a number of roles including: Chief Investment Strategist and Chief Investment Officer, where he was instrumental in creating and refining Waldron's investment discipline.