Monday, April 12, 2010

On Wealth Accumulation and Inheritance

While most of us are busily engrossed in our oh-so-American habit of trying to accumulate unbounded wealth, it is instructive to remind ourselves of the words of philanthropic wisdom penned by Andrew Carnegie more than a century ago:
"[T]he duty of the man of wealth . . . [is] to set an example of modest, unostentatious living, shunning display or extravagance; to provide moderately for the legitimate wants of those dependent upon him; and after doing so to consider all surplus revenues which come to him simply as trust funds which he is called upon to administer . . . to produce the most beneficial results for the community." (Andrew Carnegie, from essay on "Wealth" published in the North American Review, 1889)
A quintessential living example of Carnegie's model philanthropy of 1) living frugally, 2) providing modestly for the material well-being of family members, and 3) giving the remainder back to the community, is Chuck Feeney, the so-called "billionaire who wasn't":
"He was prepared [in 1997] to reveal his secret to the world, that he was not a billionaire, as he was usually referred to in the business pages, and that he had long ago given everything, including his DFS [Duty Free Shoppers] shares and his businesses, to his two philanthropic foundations, the Atlantic Foundation and the Atlantic Trust, based in Bermuda. He was personally worth less than $2 million, a fact known only to a tight circle of family and friends. . . ." (excerpt from Conor O'Clery, The Billionaire Who Wasn't: How Chuck Feeney Secretly Made and Gave Away a Fortune, 2007)
Apparently, at least for Feeney in 1997 at the age of 65, less than $2 million out of his $4 billion fortune is all that he felt necessary to retain to assure his (and his wife's) own personal financial security during the remainder of their lifetime.

Taken together, the above two quotes on philanthropy provide what I consider to be valuable ancillary guidance on inheritance, particularly for any parents deliberating over how much wealth to leave to their children:

a. "Provide moderately for the legitimate wants of those dependent upon [them]": Though Carnegie is not more specific on this point in his "Wealth" essay, it seems fair to interpret "legitimate wants" to range from basic needs to a modest though comfortable lifestyle, and "those dependent on [them]" to refer to children of minor age and any dependents of majority age in need of funds due to illness, unemployment or other significant financial setbacks in life;

b. "Less than $2 million": If a person who made not "just" millions but billions of dollars can feel secure retaining less than $2 million in personal wealth, then we can reasonably infer that anyone outside of this rarified circle of billionaires ought to require no more than $2 million to feel materially content. In other words, we should interpret $2 million as an upper limit on the total amount of accumulated wealth that a single individual or married couple could possibly require to meet personal needs, including whatever earnings and savings they are able to realize through their own efforts prior to considering any inheritance.

The implication here is that parents should not feel obligated to bequeath to their children any more than $2 million minus whatever the children are able to accumulate through their own careers, and for children with high earnings power this means no inheritance whatsoever is in order. As Carnegie states, most giving spreads "a spirit of dependence on alms, when what is essential for progress is that they [the recipients] should be inspired to depend on their own exertions." In an even earlier age, Plutarch issued the warning, "he that first gave thee money made thee idle, and is the cause of this base and dishonorable way of living."

My own view is that the best gift that parents can provide their children is making sure that the children learn by the time they reach adulthood how to educate themselves, earn their own living and save for retirement through their own effort and ingenuity, without counting on any inheritance to be forthcoming from parents or the proverbial "rich uncle." Large gifts of money and assets unfortunately subject recipients to the risk of reduced motivation and deflated self-esteem, arguably to a larger extent than providing any real benefit to their material well-being. After children reach adulthood, parents should, while continuing to offer open-minded and big-hearted emotional support, provide for their children (and grandchildren) not much more than a financial safety net, similar in substance to temporary unemployment benefits--all in the spirit of, as Carnegie put it, "helping those who will help themselves."