This article is part of a series brought to you by RBC Echelon, a suite of private wealth management services for ultra-high-net-worth clients and The Williams Group, a consulting group focused on preparing families for wealth transfer.
Having grown up in a poor section of Oklahoma, John Caldwell1 was determined to give his children a better life. Through determination, hard work and above-average business sensibilities, he amassed a significant fortune in real estate and investments. To ensure his legacy could continue, he hired trusted and well-regarded financial advisors and tax planners to help minimize taxes, grow and preserve his wealth, and establish clear governance processes.
As his business grew, Caldwell made each of his four children equal owners in the assets so when the day came, they would all receive an equal distribution. However, when he passed away and his wealth was set to transfer, his family was unprepared to receive it. Although each of the children had an equal share of the assets, they did not have a shared desire to be equal owners.
For example, one child wanted to build a business and a home on shared land, another lost their job and moved into a shared vacation home, and another borrowed a significant amount from the family bank to start a franchise business. Each sibling was realizing unequal gains from the shared assets. Relationships started to unravel, the mom found herself in the difficult position of having kids jockeying for her favor and factions among the siblings and spouses took shape. This increased tension and unanswered questions put the family harmony at risk and created the real possibility of litigation. With no central figure holding the vision for the family wealth together, everyone started looking out for their own interests. Gossip, judgement and misunderstandings prevailed, spoiling family holiday gatherings with discord and rancor.
Caldwell's estate planning, though meticulous when it came to his assets, hadn't included a family mission statement—one of the most crucial elements of all. Without a mission statement, Caldwell's family members had no real understanding of the use or purpose of the family wealth, imperiling the legacy that he had worked so hard to create.
The importance of a family mission statement
Building a central mission statement based on shared family values is vital to a sustainable legacy. It provides the foundation on which current and future generations can make decisions together, understand their roles, and perhaps most importantly, give future generations a framework to understand what it means to be a member of that family. A clearly written family mission statement provides unifying guidance for professional advisors, resolves disputes and impasses and provides forward-looking guidance as new circumstances and situations arise. It is designed to accompany the estate documents and provide intentions behind estate planning objectives.
A family's values and mission statement should not be limited to the goals of the parents. Rather, they're best developed with the entire family's perspectives included. When the entire family participates in this process, it charts an intentional course for everyone involved.
How to create a family mission statement
Every family will have a legacy; the question is, how intentional do you want to be about how that legacy takes shape? Generationally successful families take the time to build a mission or purpose statement with clear roles and responsibilities to ensure the mission statement is lived. More than just what you want the wealth to accomplish (e.g., “take care of my spouse and children"), a mission statement should also include how that will be accomplished.
For example, a mission statement might encourage community involvement, or promote the values of the family. Or it could create opportunities for personal and business growth by offering everyone a role in addressing the needs of the family.
The process of creating a mission statement can in itself be a powerful way to build family trust and relationships, as articulating and understanding each other's values requires a certain amount of vulnerability. It can be an intimate discussion about what drives individual actions across many aspects, including religion, self-awareness and development, goals, intellectual pursuits, political leanings and much more. Family members that feel they're being listened to may also feel understood, cared for and satisfied that their perspectives matter.
More than that, the process can also be an opportunity for a family member to find a role that allows them to contribute to the family wealth. Let me use another Williams Group example to demonstrate. In the first meeting with the Davis family,1 a 30-year-old family member was two hours late and appeared disheveled. They had not held a steady job since college, while every other member of the family had a career in business. In their competitive family culture, the thinking was, “If you're not, or do not ascribe to be, a business person, CEO or president, you're a nobody." With this attitude in mind, one might not have expected the 30-year-old to contribute anything meaningful to the family.
However, when the discussion and planning turned to philanthropy, the family member saw possibilities to work in a different kind of environment. Their energy and enthusiasm for the potential within the family foundation was contagious. They plunged into the role, working feverishly to learn more and become competent to make “good" philanthropic decisions. The family member blossomed, and several years later, after a series of family meetings, further education and real-world experience, they were made president of the family foundation. They had found his life purpose and confidence and increased their self-esteem.
This shows how taking the time to create a mission statement is one of the biggest gifts you can give your family. Start the process now, or as early as possible, so the entire family can practice working together, and have access to the wisdom of the family leadership for as long as possible.