I am a firm believer in the importance of family meetings. If I’m meeting with clients this time of year, inevitably someone will ask the question: “We’ll all be in town over the holidays. Should we have our family meeting at Christmas?” My usual response? Avoid doing so.
Although it is tempting to schedule a family meeting when everyone will already be in town for a holiday, it is usually best not to attempt talking about terms of trusts, business succession planning or other potentially sensitive planning issues in conjunction with a family holiday celebration. This is especially important for families who are new to family meetings, who have added new family members through marriage or engagement, who have strong differences of opinions on critical issues, or who have significant decisions or planning changes to discuss.
Considerations when holding a meeting over a holiday
Mixing a festive gathering centered around an emotionally significant event such as Christmas or Hanukkah, with a meeting at which you tell the children how you intend to leave your wealth (or name the person you have picked to run the business or manage family trusts) has the potential to end badly, especially if the information you are presenting to the family is unexpected or hard for them to hear. Consider the following:
- It may be difficult even for adult children to hear about your estate planning because it reminds them of your eventual mortality. Some family members may need time to prepare for and process this topic before they are emotionally ready to discuss it.
- Your plans may surprise your children, especially if your plan holds most of the assets in trusts, makes large charitable bequests or provides substantial gifts to other family members or friends.
- Discussions of money or family business ownership and management can spark serious disagreement, hurt feelings, jealousy or anger among family members, especially if you have not thoroughly considered and prepared for the relationships and personalities in your family. These discussions are best done at a different time, in a neutral location and perhaps using a professional facilitator.
- Some people are naturally more emotional during the holidays, and requiring them to discuss sensitive topics at a time when they are not thinking as clearly as they ordinarily would, could cause more harm than good to family relationships. It could also make it very difficult to bring these topics up for discussion again in the future.
Contemplate another time of year for substantive meetings
Instead of holding the family meeting over the holiday, think of another way to inspire everyone to get together during the year (perhaps a long weekend at a resort or a trip to the parents’ winter or summer home). Plan to add some enjoyable family activities to the agenda for additional enticement. For many families, it is worth the extra expense of a 2nd gathering in order to keep holidays as family togetherness time.
Use the holidays to do some meeting preparation
Engaging in activities that will strengthen the bonds between family members IS something that could be done while the family is together over a holiday. Participating in shared activities that many family members enjoy can create goodwill and positive memories that remind family members of what they have in common. These memories can build a reservoir of goodwill that could help see the family through more difficult conversations later.
You also could devote some of your time together toward preparing the next generations for upcoming wealth management responsibilities. This would actually be a great time to discuss the family legacy and share stories about previous generations, the origins of family traditions or the early days in the family business. (See our previous blog post entitled “Give your family the gift of family legacy over the holidays.”)
For families that generally get along well with one another, using time during the holidays to plan an upcoming family meeting (especially the social activities and next generation education sessions) might be helpful. This would allow you to gather input from all the family members and choose meeting activities that they will look forward to attending.
Let the holidays be remembered fondly
You don’t want the words “The Christmas of 2019” to live in infamy, spoken only in whispers by family members who attended the meeting that went off the rails and spoiled all subsequent family holiday celebrations.
Instead, allow your holiday gatherings to be remembered fondly, by saving the discussion of important, but potentially stressful, topics for a time when they will not be associated with family holiday traditions and events. If you would like additional information about planning or holding family meetings, please contact your Warner attorney or Mark Harder at 616.396.3225 (email@example.com).
For more information, see our Legacy Matters blog post series on holding family meetings at http://www.wnj.com/Blogs/Private-Client-and-Family-Office-Blog.