Young inheritors’ ambivalence about their wealth

By Barbara Blouin, The Inheritance Project

“When I was in my twenties I inherited a little over a million dollars. I thought I was a goddamn Rockefeller!”

—Wendy

The contents in this post are taken directly from my first book, The Legacy of Inherited Wealth: Interviews with Heirs. All the materials in all this books, its sequel Labors of Love: The Legacy of Inherited Wealth, Book 2, and the seven booklets come from “real people.” There are no composite or invented characters.

I have edited these interviews as lightly as possible. Although most of the heirs interviewed for this book chose to take pseudonyms, some were willing to use their real names, however, in order to simplify things, I am using first names only.

I don’t intend to analyze or generalize. In fact, generalization about this intense subject would be suspect—at least to me. How heirs feel about receiving a million dollars or many millions early in their lives is such a complex subject that I have decided to let the heirs’ words stand on their own.

The is only one one generalization I think necessary: The perception of what “rich” means is entirely subjective and varies enormously from person to person. For example, when Wendy received a small inheritance she told me she felt like a Rockefeller. Her ideas about her position in the world of the wealthy changed considerably over the years, and I think that on this subject of ambivalence about having inherited wealth, I find this interview with “Wendy Johnson” the most helpful to readers in pulling apart the tangled and conflicted family and social influences in her life that led her to feel so ambivalent about her money.

Some heirs (I am using this word for both male and female inheritors because it is a short word) hated their money, at least initially. Some were thrilled from the beginning. Most were ambivalent in one way or another. Almost all of them changed their minds about their money and themselves as their lives went on.

As you are read these, please send the analytical part of your mind on a vacation and just take in the emotional qualities of these short accounts.

When I was around fourteen, I received outright one hundred percent of my net worth—no strings attached. I guess my parents just assumed from day one that we were going to be responsible, so they just did it that way. They didn’t think they needed to put the money in trust and make us jump through various hoops in order to get it. I felt very well prepared, and I was never ashamed of having wealth. I’ve always thought it was a great opportunity.

—Henry

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I have had inherited money ever since I can remember. I get dividends from my grandfather’s trust. They come in the mail periodically. To give you an idea of just how out to lunch I am about this, I never know when those checks are coming. And I never know what the amount will be. . . . I actually remember saying, dozens of times, “Ugh! More money!” The feeling I had was that the money was already such a burden and a weight, and when another check came, there was even more! Often I wouldn’t even deposit those checks for weeks.

—Rebecca

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I found out I was wealthy when I was twenty-one. My parents flew me out to Las Vegas … in a private jet. We had a suite at Caesar’s Palace, and we were sitting at breakfast, eating lox and bagels. … My father showed me a document, and it turned out to be my trust. He told me, “You are a very rich woman.” All I knew is that it was a great feeling. A rush of warmth came over me, a heady excitement. But beyond that, it didn’t mean anything; it just meant that I was safe. I was going to be taken care of.

—Barbara

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I love having my wealth. It’s very important to me; it’s central to my personality in both good and bad ways. Interestingly, nobody else in my family appears to care as much about the family wealth and its future. My father may be gone tomorrow—he may get hit by a truck—and nobody would be there to pick up. . . . Prominent in my thoughts is what my father said when I was younger: If you don’t cultivate your wealth, if you don’t treat your wealth like the gem it is, it will tarnish, it will disappear, it will leave you. And I don’t want that to happen on my watch..

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When I was around sixteen, my sister and I went downtown to the family office, and my uncle Harvey brought out some balance sheets. He told my sister and me what we were worth. He showed us some numbers. . . . He told us that the trusts were for our benefit, to make sure somebody wouldn’t try to marry us for our money. What kind of mind produces that suspicion? . . . Before that visit to the family office, I never knew how rich we were. When I got home, I told my parents, “I hate this! I hate having all this money! I can’t stand it!”

—Kate

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There is much to reflect on in these six accounts, and there are eleven more in the book. When I think back to the interviews my co-authors and I collected, no two were the same. All these heirs offer some unique perspective on being given wealth that they have not earned. Love or hate, or both—ambivalence.
For wealthy parents who are considering giving large inheritances to their children, and particularly for heirs themselves, learning how such inheritances can change their lives is a tremendous gift.