Don’t Want to Leave Money to Your Kids? You’ll Probably Change Your Mind.

How much is too much to leave your children? You may be surprised.

Two little girls lounge by a pool with their hair wrapped in turbans and cucumber slices on their eyes.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Some parents fear leaving their children too much money. They talk about their friend’s child, who ended up doing little with their lives and abusing drugs and alcohol. Or they have an image of “trust fund babies” who sleep all day and party all night.

The good news is that the vast majority of children with inherited wealth do lead productive lives and would not fall into any of the above descriptions. Their parents set expectations, provided guidance and encouragement, and set limits when the children were growing up. No surprise their children turned out just fine.

Parents also fear leaving their children a significant part of their wealth because it could ruin their drive to live a productive life, fearing they simply might not feel the need to work. Or that the children will feel that any financial success they achieve will not be meaningful compared to their inheritance. So, they choose to leave a relatively small inheritance, enough to help but not eliminate the need to work. But parents often greatly underestimate the amount their children may need simply as a safety net, let alone to enhance their lives. Further, parents may not be aware there are certain controls they can put on the money they leave to their children that can assuage fears about misuse.

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As parents grow older, learn about these controls, and start to realize economic conditions are different, many end up changing their minds about how much money they want to leave their grown children. Coming to this conclusion earlier rather than later can have its benefits.

Here’s how to re-think leaving money to your children.

Determine your goals

If a parent's concern is that they will harm their child by leaving them too much money, they need to determine what dollar amount will cause that harm. The answer depends on what they want their children to achieve with the money. Then consider the what-ifs. For example, assume a parent wants to leave their child $500,000.

  • What if the adult child has a health crisis or they have a baby with a disability, incurring significant costs to the adult child and/or preventing them from being able to work?
  • What if the market sinks and the $500,000 becomes $250,000?
  • What if despite working hard, they or their employer are put out of business by a competitor, regulations or shifts in consumer taste?

While $500,000 may seem like a lot, if you take into consideration all the possibilities, it can be dissipated quickly on non-frivolous expenses. On the other end of the spectrum, some parents ask where the limit is. When is the line crossed from “enough” to “too much”? They want to help their kids, but they don’t want to give them beyond what they could possibly need.

These goals may change as the child ages and grandchildren are born. Once their adult child starts working, parents may want to help with rent so they can have a nicer place to live or groceries so they eat a healthier diet. When grandchildren enter the picture, the parents may want to help their adult children buy a big enough house in a safe neighborhood with good schools. Grandparents may want to help pay for the grandkids’ higher education (or even private school for K-12) or want to ensure they will be able to afford good health care.

Parents’ goals and perspectives change over time, and financial plans change along with them.

Learn about controls and family conflict

Parents can put controls on the wealth they leave their adult children by using trusts. Parents can choose a trustee to manage the trust so the kids don’t have full access or control. The trust can help them get an education, buy a place to live and start a business, but they can’t just live off the trust and sit around doing nothing. These controls can be different for each child. If parents know one child won’t lose their drive no matter how much money they have but another child will spend it all in a week, the children can be given different, access, controls and rights over their trusts.

These differences could cause conflict in the family, so parents need to keep an open line of communication with their children to explain their concerns and why they set the trusts up the way they did.

Teach your children about money

It’s up to parents to teach their children how fortunate they are to inherit anything, and that responsibility comes along with having money. Used properly, wealth can provide a safety net for unforeseen circumstances (which always arise) and provide a better lifestyle than a child might otherwise attain with his or her own income. Used wisely, having wealth can impact the children’s own communities if used to create jobs by starting or growing a business. Parents can teach their children that while they have a comfortable lifestyle, they can also use their money to benefit the world around them.

Parents may fear that leaving their children money will end up doing more harm than good, but if parents teach their children from a young age how to properly use their wealth and set expectations, it’s less likely the children will use it irresponsibly. And if parents are still fearful their kids won’t use their money properly, they can place controls on what they give. But parents’ goals will inevitably change as they get older and situations change, so leave room for flexibility.

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.

David Handler, J.D.
Partner in Trusts & Estates, Kirkland & Ellis

David A. Handler is a partner in the Trusts and Estates Practice Group of Kirkland & Ellis LLP. He concentrates his practice on trust and estate planning and administration, representing owners of closely held businesses, family offices, principals of private equity and venture capital funds, individuals and families of significant wealth, and establishing and administering private foundations and other charitable organizations.