Strategies for navigating family financial conversations

Financial Planning

Key takeaways

  • Gather as many family members together as possible so everyone hears the same message at the same time. Letting them know what you’ll be discussing beforehand can help manage emotions.
  • If conversations get heated or off track, one way to defuse the conflict is to focus on what parts of the conversation have been productive.

For many people, money can be a hard topic to broach, and it’s easy to keep pressing pause on discussing financial planning with your family. But the truth is, there’s no time like the present to address these matters head on in a calm, productive way. When you can speak to everyone at once, the conversations tend to be much more effective.

“Gathering everyone to hear the same message at the same time is far better than each person hearing it differently,” says Tom Thiegs, a leadership and legacy consultant at Ascent Private Capital Management of U.S. Bank. “Talking through financial matters face-to-face can help ensure the emotional part of the message — facial expression, body language, tone — is not lost.”

Though emotions can run high in financial discussions, taking the right approach can help minimize potential conflict and get everyone on the same page. Here are three strategies to have a productive family financial planning conversation.

1. Plan in advance

One way to help your family manage their emotions is to call and inform them of what you would like to discuss beforehand so that no one is caught off guard.

“This gives them time to process, prepare questions and think about the potential implications,” Thiegs says. “It allows people to have some emotions ahead of time, so they can hear the full message rather than having those emotions in the moment.”

“Talking through financial matters face-to-face can help ensure the emotional part of the message — facial expression, body language, tone — is not lost.”

- Tom Thiegs, leadership and legacy consultant at Ascent Private Capital Management of U.S. Bank

Emily Bouchard, a leadership and legacy consultant at Ascent, recommends providing a timeframe for the conversation, so relatives can schedule for it and so that it doesn’t bleed into other activities. Start the conversation with things that are less heavy and then, once lines of communication are open, other topics can surface organically. Oftentimes, this initial conversation can be a jumping-off point for a more detailed discussion later. By starting with a list of “what if’s,” you may lead the conversation into deeper topics.

Bouchard says it’s typical for families to hire an outside consultant, such as a financial professional, to help guide these conversations. “A neutral third party can facilitate and make sure all family members come out feeling positive and grateful for the opportunity to discuss their concerns, hopes and desires with ease,” she adds.

2. Align your values

It’s helpful to identify your intentions for the family’s wealth during these conversations. John Campbell, senior vice president and east region managing director, wealth planning for U.S. Bank Private Wealth Management, notes the importance of starting financial discussions with a value proposition.

“These discussions aren’t just about leaving assets behind, but really about what kind of legacy you want to create that can embody the values and goals your family has,” he says.

If, for example, your family is having end-of-life conversations and planning the legacy of a relative or the entire family, perhaps you’ll want to focus on stewardship and philanthropy and how your money may make a difference for others in the future. Or maybe your family places a high value on education and wants to make sure everyone is aligned on how wealth will support not just family members’ education, but educational institutions as well.

Again, a third party can help incorporate these values into discussions. “When requested, we often start out by having a discussion with the whole family, and then break off into individual conversations,” Campbell says. “This offers family members more personalized attention and privacy and can help everyone navigate getting the right financial plans in place for themselves that align with those larger values.”

3. Defuse conflict

Despite everyone’s best efforts, these conversations can sometimes get off track. Here are some tips for defusing conflict:

  • Talk about your intent early on. People tend to get more frustrated with why they think you’re saying something than the actual content of your message.
  • The right conversation in the wrong mood is the wrong conversation. Steer clear of these topics later in the day or after a long day of celebrating.
  • Use humor. When things get heated, consider using good-natured humor and playfulness to defuse the situation. When feelings inevitably get hurt, try to tap into your abiding shared value of putting family first.
  • Discuss the meta-conversation. If people need to cool their heads, try getting relatives to say what went well about the conversation, what they saw as valuable or where they think things went awry. If you can pinpoint where your family’s communication broke down, the family can have a better conversation when you all come back together.

Bouchard says that a family member may ultimately decline an invitation to be included in a conversation about planning for the future. Assume everyone in the family will want to be present during these conversations, but if a relative can’t or won’t be there for whatever reason, just understand that they are opting out of being included.

But for those ready to talk, be thankful. Do your best to inform those who opt out about what was discussed and what decisions may have been made in their absence. “Always end with a sense of gratitude. Say, ‘Thank you for being willing to have this type of conversation,’” Bouchard says.

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