The Rules of the Family

 September 13 2018     Anna Pfaehler

One morning my then 4-year-old daughter, we’ll call her Bee, asked me “What are the rules of the family?” Kids have a way of asking you deep questions when you are least prepared. My quick answer was:

  1. Stick together

  2. Love each other

  3. Have fun

These were all things she could understand given her limited scope of experiences and frame of reference. They were slightly aspirational and I was pretty happy I could come up with something beyond the literal rules of “no hitting” etc. before I had drank any coffee. Bee was satisfied and happily buzzed off to breakfast.

But what are the rules of my family?

We each have our own set of values that form our actions. Our values are our navigation system guiding us through decisions. We tap into our values daily, even subconsciously, to make choices. They become part of the fiber of our being.

While actions certainly speak louder than words, for only a certain few do our values present so clearly that even a stranger could identify them. The late John McCain seems a prime example of someone whose values are plainly visible. As heard from her eulogy, Meghan McCain certainly knows what steered her maverick father. However, few of us will ever face the decisions he faced or have similar opportunities to show our character.

Our decisions are quieter and often contained in our own spheres without anyone knowing the weights given to various factors. Unless your children are clairvoyant, to make your values understood you have to not only live them but also explain them. Preferably these discussions happen early and often making use of teachable moments throughout childhood; however, there is opportunity to begin these discussions even after children are grown.

Writing a “family mission statement” as part of an estate plan can be a relatively painless first step especially if open discussion about money between generations is difficult for your family. This statement would explain what you value and what actions you are taking to achieve or reflect those values.

Estate documents are lifeless. Meaningful guidance on the deceased’s intentions or hopes are typically not included among the legal boilerplate. Leaving a letter that explains why certain estate planning decisions were made and the values intended to drive the use of the assets can be of tremendous help to heirs. While not necessarily legally binding, it can help a trustee or guardian with a decision such as if private school is too expensive or perfectly acceptable. Or it can illuminate the reasoning for providing for one child differently than another. 

The act of writing such a letter itself is a valuable exercise. It allows you to organize your own thoughts around your particular values and how they pertain to the use of your money. Having clarity around your own principals can help you keep your actions consistent.  You have to know your own rules and play by them before you can ask your family to do the same.