Researchers who study wealth and its effects on human behavior have found that money affects the way we relate to other people. While many wealthy families attend to the tax, succession, and legal aspects of financial planning, often they neglect to prepare for their psychological and emotional responses that arise during the financial decision making process. American families are more complex and diverse than they used to be, and the intricacies of these dynamics present new challenges for high-net-worth families and their financial advisors.

The world of UHNW (Ultra-High-Net Worth) financial planning is more interesting and multifaceted than it once was due to changing family structures, shifting gender roles among men and women, and generational differences among family members when it comes to spending and investing. We often hear the wealthy talk about money, but rarely do we hear ultra-affluent people discuss their personal feelings about wealth, or how money affects their relationships. For family wealth managers, the ability to understand family relationship dynamics, as well as gracefully navigate these complexities, has become increasingly important.

In the interest of starting a dialogue on this topic, I’ve outlined several trends that I’ve observed in my work as a financial advisor for UHNW families. What do the situations below have in common? Underlying the following examples is the question of what wealth really complicates (for all of us): our ability to build relationships, communicate effectively, and trust others.


  • Intergenerational Wealth and Millennials.The biggest challenge that millennials pose to family wealth managers isn’t their mistrust of the financial services industry, or supposed lack of financial knowledge. Rather, many conflicts have roots in generational differences among family members–their clashing attitudes toward wealth. Millennials tend to view wealth as a means to advance causes they care about, or as an opportunity to make a philanthropic impact. Millennials are also more concerned than their parents are about ensuring their investments align with their personal values.
  • Intergenerational Wealth and Aging Parents. Within families, the differences in generational attitudes can lead to clashing priorities during financial decision making and wealth transfer processes. Older generations may be anxious that their wealth will have a negative impact on their kids, and aging parents can be hesitant when it comes to ceding control over their finances. Having to consider their demise may upset other clients who fear their kids may lack the kind of maturity and competence that’s needed to manage wealth responsibly. As you can see, there are a number of complex emotions and  psychological factors that come into play.
  • Financial Decision-Making and Gender. Although high-net-worth women are taking an increasingly active role in household financial planning, for older women–many of whom were never exposed to opportunities that would allow them to take on a more active role–have long deferred to their husbands or partners on financial issues. That many older women lack hands-on experience when it comes to financial decision making can lead to problems down the road. There can be a steep learning curve for women who aren’t used to managing large amounts of wealth. This is a common occurrence among women who are recently divorced or widowed, who need to assume a leadership role in managing assets and household finances. The process is overwhelming for them–and understandably so–as suddenly they find themselves in a position where they need to make consequential financial decisions while grieving, or under immense stress.
  • Starting Young. An article published last fall in Bloomberg BusinessWeek demonstrates what it looks like when women and girls are left out of family conversations about wealth. The exclusion of female family members can be unintentional, and this seems to be the case in anecdotes the article draws upon to explain strategies that Sheila Stinson, a family wealth manager in Florida, uses to teach younger clients about wealth. With these kids, Stinson plays “Money Matters,” a game featuring a set of flashcards that show pictures of material goods. The following two excerpts show how, when they are taught about finance, boys and girls are not always treated with equal seriousness:

Stinson “asks the children to tell her if the item is a ‘need’ or a ‘want,’ something they can do without. She recently showed a picture of a purse to four girls aged 9 to 11. One girl called it a want. Another said no, a Tory Burch handbag is essential.”

“She asked one family’s three boys, ages 15, 19, and 21, to create a visual representation of the clan’s core values. The boys returned with a drawing of a custom Jeep, each part corresponding to a different value. The antenna represented communication; the snowboard rack was work-life balance; the windshield, integrity; the engine, loyalty; the steering wheel, drive; the headlights, respect; the massive tires, ambition; and the lift kit, growth. Their dad was touched…as a family they made a decision that they were going to go and build this Jeep.”

Although the game is clever and potentially useful, the article conveys an unsaid assumption that young girls are less interested and less capable than young boys are when it comes to handling financial matters.

It is not unusual for those who inherit family wealth to feel their lives lack purpose, or to struggle with feelings of guilt and entitlement. Trusting other people can be difficult for people born into ultra-wealthy families, too, as money makes them feel isolated from their peers. That Americans are discouraged from discussing money and financial matters openly only compounds the sense of isolation that these families experience.

Wealthy people in the U.S. are often put on a pedestal; in reality, these families are just as varied as everyone else’s. It’s important to remember that all families are complicated. Financial advisors who work with UHNW families can better serve their clients by cultivating a safe and inclusive environment for families to begin having these conversations–conversations they know they need to have, but haven’t been able to initiate on their own.