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Clash for clunkers

Sep 16, 2019

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This Is Uncomfortable

There’s more to an inheritance than money

Marketplace Staff Nov 12, 2010
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TEXT OF COMMENTARY

Tess Vigeland: On last week’s show we had a conversation about what it’s like to be part of the “Sandwich Generation,” caring financially for children and aging parents at the same time.

This week a follow-up question: If family finances are being drawn down to help with costs for Grandma and Grandpa, what happens to the idea of inheritance?

That question got commentator and New York Times Wealth columnist Paul Sullivan thinking about what to leave behind.


Paul Sullivan: Most people hear the word inheritance and think about money. I don’t. It’s the least of my worries when it comes to my daughter. She just had her first birthday in August. The money part was pretty straightforward. We contacted an attorney. We looped in our financial adviser. Most importantly, we picked a guardian.

It wasn’t cheap, and it took a lot of time to do. But that was easy compared to what lies ahead. The crucial part of our daughter’s inheritance is what we teach her about making her way in the world.

We live in Fairfield County, Conn. It’s a very nice place, but it’s not normal. Many children our daughter plays with come from families whose wealth is measured in the tens of millions, if not billions of dollars. There are tremendous advantages to this, like a tax base that funds great schools.

Of course, I want our daughter to know she is fortunate to have these unique opportunities. But this will be a challenge: Here, an upper-middle-class kid looks poor compared to a billionaire’s child.

For my wife, it’s important to leave our daughter with a broader view of success. The schools around us send scores of kids to Ivy League universities every year. Maybe our daughter will go to one of them — but this only counts as success if it’s what she wants to do.

So far, she loves to eat. We joke that she might become a chef or a food critic. Either would be great — as long as she wants to do it.

That’s why I believe it is absurd for all but the richest families to get wrapped up in the amount of money they will leave their children. First, that fortune could disappear. Think of the people whose wealth was tied up in Lehman Brothers. Worse, waiting for it can leave heirs overly dependent on their parents well into adulthood.

What matters to us is that our daughter inherits a sense of independence and a sophisticated view of the world. This is far more important than money.


Vigeland: Paul Sullivan writes the Wealth Matters column for the New York Times and is the author of “Clutch: Why Some People Excel Under Pressure and Others Don’t.”

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