When boomers inherit, complications may follow

By Fran Hawthorne / New York Times News Service

Published Feb 14, 2014 at 12:01AM

Sara Rowbotham Cornell named her Boston-based digital media company in honor of her parents’ longtime vacation house, Blue Blinds, which she inherited. A watercolor of the 1870s-era New Hampshire farmhouse hangs in her own home.

With the tug of remembrance strong, it took her a couple of years “to be emotionally ready to sell the house,” recalled Cornell, 50. A calculation of the cost of upkeep, plus a visit to the empty homestead, finally convinced her. “I realized that by selling the house, I wasn’t selling my parents’ spirit, and I wasn’t selling my memories,” she said.

Heirs have been struggling with the effect of inheritance at least since Jacob bought the right to be recognized as firstborn from Esau in the Book of Genesis. But there have never been as many heirs with as much money as now, thanks to the intersection of two demographics: the 79 million baby boomers and the general thriftiness of their Depression-raised parents. The Center for Retirement Research at Boston College estimates that boomers will ultimately receive a total of $8.4 trillion, most of it by 2030.

In significant ways, this cohort is different from heirs throughout history and also from recipients of other windfalls, including people who sell their business, win the lottery or negotiate big divorce settlements. They are relatively older, they are probably inheriting from financially conservative parents and they are dealing with deep emotional reactions.

“Inherited money is sacred money,” said Rick Kagawa, 61, a financial planner in California who inherited money and property when his mother died in 2010. (He will not reveal the dollar value.) “Whatever you do with that money, you should think about your parents and what they would think of what you did.”

While other so-called sudden money recipients can be of any age, those who inherit from parents are typically middle-aged or older. Depending on the amount, the newfound assets can open fresh possibilities just as “they’re looking at that shift stage of life when they’re going from career to the next career” or to retirement, said Susan Bradley, founder of the Sudden Money Institute in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., a resource center for recipients and financial planners.

Tough decisions

Often, as with Cornell, emotional ties make heirs reluctant to alter a penny of their parents’ investment strategy or shed a single inch of property.

“We’ve had clients who wanted to keep a stock that was part of the family’s wealth in memory of their parents, even if it’s causing a lack of diversification in the portfolio,” said Charles Haines Jr., chief executive of Kinsight, a financial advisory firm based in Birmingham, Ala., with $500 million under management.

That attitude would be problematic enough with any generational changeover, since experts usually advise younger people to take more investment risk than their elders do. But the disparity is particularly extreme now, because boomers’ parents, scarred by the Depression, were especially cautious investors.

“I see a lot of clients in that Greatest Generation who keep huge amounts in their checking accounts — $200,000, $500,000,” said Meredith Beers, a partner at the law firm Holland & Knight’s private wealth services section in Boston.

Hardly anyone thinks that is a wise investment. Fidelity Investment’s premixed portfolio for a 59-year-old — the median boomer age — recommends 60 percent in stocks, 32 percent in bonds, and the rest in short-term instruments.

Some heirs feel that “I inherited the money. I get to do what I want with it,” said John Garniewski Jr., the senior managing director of Delaware-based Wilmington Trust’s wealth advisory service, with $79 billion under management. “Others may look at it as, ‘I’m a steward of the family’s wealth, and I want to have it continue into my children’s lifetime.’”

“There’s no right or wrong answer to this, as long as you are consciously making your decisions,” said Christopher Cordaro, chief executive of RegentAtlantic Capital, a wealth management firm in Morristown, N.J., with more than $2 billion in assets.

Creating a lasting memory

Nancy, a retired dietitian in New Jersey who would not allow her last name to be used, kept her six-figure inheritance from her mother in safe but low-earning Treasury bills for about seven years after her mother died in 2003, even as her financial adviser repeatedly recommended a more aggressive strategy.

“I didn’t want to take any risk with my mother’s money — that’s how I looked at it,” she recalled.

Over time, however, “you think a little differently,” she continued. She eventually was able to accept the inheritance as her own and meld it with her other savings.

Bradley of the Sudden Money Institute suggests that instead of trying to memorialize parents by hanging onto their stock portfolio, offspring should “do something with the money to create a lasting memory.” One client, she said, uses the interest from her inheritance to host an annual family reunion.

Heirs could also endow a scholarship, name a room at a museum, or make some other philanthropic contribution. Such “naming rights” often cost less than $50,000.

Kagawa donated to the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles and to a Japanese garden his mother particularly liked, which put up plaques in his father’s and mother’s names, respectively.

On the other hand, if the family relationship was strained, Haines of Kinsight said, “The heirs may say, ‘I’m going to show you!’” — by giving money to a political party or a cause the parents would have hated. And of course, great wealth is often dissipated across generations.

Having the conversation

It might seem that, unlike lottery winners, boomers have the advantage of planning ahead, knowing that a bequest is coming even if they cannot be sure exactly when. But experts say that their parents’ generation was often so tight-lipped about money that the offspring really have no idea what to expect. That lack of communication is a big mistake, advisers say.

The parents must initiate the conversation, Haines warned. “For the younger generation, it’s very difficult to say, ‘We need to talk about the inheritance.’ They come off sounding like, ‘Gimme, gimme, gimme.’”

Despite all the luxuries that an inheritance can confer, many boomers would probably agree with Nancy, who said, “I would much rather have my mother’s company than her money.”