Donald Bren is the 68th richest man in the world, with a net worth of 16.4 billion dollars. He’s also been married three times. His children, from a former girlfriend named Jennifer McKay Gold, were involved in a horrible, acrimonious child support case. His family life has been, to put it charitably, a mess.
“Did you ever tell Jennifer you loved her?” the attorney for the case asked him.
“No sir,” came the response from Bren. The case brought out details of Bren’s relationship (or lack thereof) with his children, and the problems that ensued down the line. Bren’s not the only rich person to deal with family struggle, problems and bitterness.
Though millionaires and billionaires tend to be married, their families also often struggle with holding onto what they’ve been given. Seven out of 10 wealthy families lose their wealth by the second generation. Nine out of ten lose it by the third.
J. Paul Getty, once the richest man in the world, was once quoted as saying “I would gladly give all my millions for just one lasting marital success.” For some reason, many people who find financial success have exactly the inverse amount of success in their families.
Why is that? Why wouldn’t the values that led to that success in the first place carry through to their families? Financial success is a blessing, but if you can’t find happiness beyond it, what’s the point?
I reached out to an entrepreneur named David Roy Newby, author of Beyond Billions and founder of Solomon Wisdom Society, to find out more about family breakdown for the wealthy. If you, like Getty, think you might be going down the wrong road, here’s how you can know.
Gary Vaynerchuk is one of the best-known entrepreneur influencers out there right now, with a net worth best guessed at around $160 million. But one of the things he’s most insistent on is setting aside his weekends for family time.
His kids are still pretty young, and Vaynerchuk’s relentless, obsessive work ethic during the week is well-known. The fruits won’t come out for a while. But it’s a safe bet that he’s doing a lot better on that front than many people who make a lot less than him.
Newby notes that most successful generationally wealthy families are very aware of this. “Most successful wealthy families involve their kids in the family business early,” he says. “And they have fun with them too. They’re spending quality time with them, not just handing them off to other people to be raised for them in some sort of billionaire greenhouse.”
How much of your time do you devote to your business? How much time to your family? There are definitely times when you’ll be busy. But if you don’t have time for your family, your family won’t have time for you.
In those 90 percent of families that lose their wealth by the third generation, how often does it happen because the wealth that was built up by the first was squandered by the next?
Far too often.
Wealth isn’t indefinite, even if it feels like it is to some of the spoiled scions of the ultra-rich. “That money may last for a little while, but if it isn’t replenished, it’ll eventually run out,” says Linda Davis Taylor, CEO of Clifford Swan Investment Counsel.
“Plus if people don’t have that sense of how good it feels to be productive, they’re not going to be happy and they won’t thrive — no matter how much money they have.”
Teaching kids to work helps them in every aspect of their lives, allowing them to be productive, contributing members of society that can take that wealth and use it purposefully — not wasteful heirs known for their extravagance.
There are physical aspects of wealth management that play into family success over the long term — things like estate and succession plans. But none of that matters if you haven’t passed down the values that led to that wealth in the first place, and it especially doesn’t matter if you don’t teach the obligation to give back.
Warren Buffett’s philosophy on this is well-known — as he states, “Basically, when you get to my age, you’ll really measure your success in life by how many of the people you want to have love you actually do love you. That’s the ultimate test of how you have lived your life. The trouble with love is that you can’t buy it. But the only way to get love is to be lovable. The more you give love away, the more you get.”
The Rockefellers and Roosevelts are well-known wealthy families that believed in the concept of “noblesse oblige,” or the importance of giving back from what you have. Both families were known for advancing the causes of those weaker than themselves as they went on through the years.
One of the Rockefeller scions was famously the only Southern governor to support Martin Luther King, and Franklin Roosevelt in particular was known for extending a hand to the downtrodden.
“If you haven’t taught your kids the values of humility and giving, all the business knowledge and all the money in the world won’t help them,” says Newby. “A legacy comes from values, skills, experiences and money you pass on intentionally. None of those can be skimped on.”
Money can be an uncomfortable conversation to have. Talking about inheritances, division of estates, and all the other things that go along with shared and inherited wealth isn’t always fun.
Do it anyway.
“One of the biggest issues I’ve seen in wealthy families that fall apart down the line is a lack of conversations about finances,” says Newby. “It’s vital to talk about what matters to the family, how resources should be used, and what inheritances will be used for. Fair distribution is key — and so is making sure everyone is on the same page. The bigger the money, the higher the stakes.”
All of these things above can be summed up in two words: family culture.
Jamie Forbes, founder of Forbes Legacy Advisors, mentions culture as one of the strongest indicators of a family’s health. “Your family’s culture is a living, breathing entity,” he says.
“It’s made up of shared common values, spiritual beliefs, economic and social norms, affiliations, activities, geography, climate, landscape, and many other factors. These common elements shared among family members creates a sense of belonging, loyalty and pride that builds resilience.”
Your values. Your skill set. Your background. Your experiences. The time you spend, the way that you approach every aspect of your life as a family — all of that is wrapped up in that one concept.
“Enabling versus empowering the next generation separates the 5-7% of families that maintain success from those that don’t,” Newby observes. “When there’s a sense of ‘this is what we do, this is who we are, and this is why we do it,’ you can empower your family without worrying that they’ll destroy everything you’ve built.”
Wealth doesn’t have to be squandered. And wealth doesn’t have to mean your family is doomed to failure. If you address these five warning signs strategically, you’ll have a happy family and a stable, multi-generational future of financial success. Build your family just as you build your wealth: by investing in it.
You’ll reap the benefits now — and the world will reap them in the future.