Family meetings are one of the most effective tools that families can use to maintain family harmony.
Quality family meetings are an opportunity to educate the next generation(s) about finances, identify and share family values, and ensure that family wealth transition plans are communicated and successfully implemented.
Successful families recognize that this is an ongoing process, and hold family meetings once or twice yearly. Regular meetings enable them to focus thoughtfully on a sequence of topics, as part of an overall plan. Ideally, a family should hold meetings routinely, rather than schedule them in reaction to crises such as health or economic events.
Remember to stress the “family” part of family meetings, recognizing there is no higher goal than fostering trust among all family members. Be authentic and transparent, and honor your family members by modeling a culture of “assume positive intent.”
Planning the Meeting: Questions to Resolve
What is the overall intention for the meeting? It’s important to consider both the content to be shared and the desired tone to be set. Will it be all business or an opportunity for deeper family connection? Both can be achieved with purposeful planning. For example, a discussion about family charitable endeavors can be a more relaxed yet very effective way to achieve both financial education and family connection.
What topics will be discussed? Will the focus be more on “substance”, to share financial content and family transition plans? Or will there be a “softer” side to the meeting, focusing on philanthropy or facilitating a session to build a family mission statement? Perhaps it will include all of these areas, but if so, it may be wise to segment the meeting accordingly.
Who will facilitate the meeting? It often contributes to a better meeting dynamic if the facilitator is not a family member. Typically the family’s team of professional advisors (CPA, attorney, wealth manager) participates, each presenting an update on their area of expertise and service to the family. One of these advisors may make a good facilitator. Other useful resources may be a third-party facilitator or a “guest speaker” for a portion of the meeting, on a topic of interest to the family.
Who will attend? Determine who the attendees will be and what groups of people should be included. Are spouses/partners invited or just nuclear family members? Are children invited, and if so, what is the minimum age for attendance? Multi-generational families may have different meetings for different generational groups.
Will the meeting be in person or via video? Having everyone in person may be ideal, but a successful meeting does not hinge on that. If many in the group are out of town, consider reverting to video only, to maintain a level playing field for all attendees. Video meetings can be very successful. They also allow for easier scheduling, so meetings don’t get pushed too far into the future, in an attempt to get everyone in the same place at the same time.
If in person, where will the meeting be held? Neutral territory is recommended. In general, it’s best not to hold the meeting at the family dining room table. To professionalize the meeting, consider holding it at one of the professional advisors’ offices.
Will you share asset values? Family leaders must consider this in advance. A quality meeting does not require sharing dollar values, if they are not comfortable doing so. It’s still possible to be completely transparent about the structure of entities/trusts, the types of assets owned, and plans for the unexpected. Sharing values can evolve over time. However, family leaders should expect questions from family members about asset values, and plan in advance how they will respond.
Will there be a social element? Some families include a fun social activity to further build family bonds, such as wine tasting, golf, or a weekend retreat.
Planning the Meeting: The Details
The facilitator, participating advisors and family leadership should plan the meeting in detail. Often the planning process takes much longer than the meeting itself. The planning group should have several discussions around building the agenda and perhaps even have a practice run of the meeting beforehand.
Once the agenda is complete, share it with all attendees in advance and let them know that they should come prepared with questions. Encouraging questions in advance goes a long way to foster an environment of transparency and authenticity among family members. This is especially helpful if you plan to discuss difficult or awkward topics that you know will make others uncomfortable.
Preparation tips to consider:
- Encourage questions before, during, and after the meeting. Everyone should feel heard.
- If you expect an attendee to take the lead on a certain topic, be sure to let them know ahead of time.
- If there are items members should bring, alert them in advance so the meeting can stay on track.
- Assign someone to take notes. This shouldn’t be anyone who is actually leading the meeting.
- Assign someone to keep time. Running meetings effectively and efficiently helps ensure that meetings are not seen as a burden in the future.
- Collect best practices and advice on how to listen and respond in supportive ways, and share those tips with the group ahead of time so you all start with the same supportive approach.
- Don’t overwhelm participants by cramming too much into one meeting.
Family meetings can be extremely valuable in keeping peace and harmony across generations. While they are a big investment in time and effort, the payoff is substantial.
The Simplify Wealth team has significant experience in planning and facilitating family meetings for our clients. We believe that family meetings have immense value and are worth the effort. If you are considering a family meeting but don’t know where to start, we can help!