Every family has a figurehead, a patriarch or matriarch who provides guidance and leadership. The influence of such a person is significant in any family but it is even greater when he or she has led the family to great wealth and success. Such people weald substantial power over the rest of the family and are therefore able to ensure that it maintains its integrity as a unit. But death poses a problem: how can a figurehead ensure that family unity is maintained once they are gone?
One way is to try to force family members to live in a prescribed way by making such behaviour a condition of their inheritance. In England, the law allows a testator to impose significant conditions on a beneficiary's right to inherit. For example, the Courts have upheld a condition that prevented a beneficiary from marrying into a different social class and also a condition that required a potential heir to carry on the family business in order to inherit.
But whether or not a conditional legacy can be upheld in law is in fact irrelevant. The question is not whether it can be done, but whether it should be done. Some conditional legacies are entirely sensible (for example, a provision that prevents a child from inheriting until they have completed a college education or if they are drug user). However, other conditions (such as requiring a child to follow a specific career path or to limit who they may marry) may be acceptable by law but they undermine the individual's right to freedom of choice and create resentment.
As Portia laments in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice:
"I may neither choose whom I would, nor refuse whom I dislike; so is the will of a living daughter curbed by the will of a dead father"
Today, the idea that one generation should determine how the next will live is entirely alien and rightly so.
So, if it is accepted that future generations cannot be forced to follow a certain path, how else can they be imbued with a sense of stewardship over the legacy they will inherit?
Communication is essential. Even when families work together and live close by, it is often the case that important issues such as inheritance are not discussed. Understandably, families find such conversations difficult and therefore avoid them. This is an opportunity missed. If a parent sits down with their children (and perhaps even their grandchildren) and explains the plans that they have made and why, there is far less potential for a divisive dispute to arise following their death.
But the concept of legacy is far broader than just the wealth that will be passed down and families should also try to form a consensus on their vision for the future. A fruitful dialogue is only possible when the younger generation shows respect for their heritage and the older generation is mindful that evolution is inevitable and must be embraced. Balancing these two considerations is key.
As families grow and scatter, family unity will increasingly depend on the enthusiasm and commitment of the younger generations. Many families organise retreats to which all members are invited. Whilst the older members study the books and receive reports on the family's investments, businesses and philanthropic endeavours, the children have a chance to meet their cousins and to have some fun. The bonds formed at these retreats create the foundation for strong working relationships later on in life thus ensuring that the family is in the best possible position to weather the challenges that expansion inevitably brings.
For a family to flourish, there must be trust between the generations. Parents must also trust that they have done their job properly: that they have imbued their child with a sense of personal responsibility and a respect for their heritage. They must then take a leap of faith and trust that their children will make good choices in the future. More often than not, that trust will be repaid.