How to avoid being the 70 percent who squander their inheritance

Posted September 8

An inheritance — particularly one of significant financial value — may seem like a hard thing to squander. But it happens more than you might think.

In a study of wealthy families, the Williams Group wealth consultancy found that some 70 percent of well-to-do families lose their wealth by the second generation; by the third generation, 90 percent.

“Receiving an inheritance can be a result of a anticipated windfall or from a tragic and unexpected premature death,” said certified financial planner M. Brandon Riley. “Each scenario has its own unique set of challenges.”

What isn't unique to any inheritance are the expenses and responsibilities associated with receiving a large sum of cash or assets. And without professional help and a long-term strategy, recipients risk mishandling their inheritance — even to the point of losing it completely.

No quick decisions

One of the first prudent moves to make in handling an inheritance is to obtain professional guidance — often, from more than one financial professional.

“Immediately get professional advice, preferably from the lawyer who executed the estate planning documents,” said Gary Duell of Duell Wealth Preservation in Happy Valley, Oregon. “And get a second opinion from a financial adviser or tax professional experienced in estate planning.”

Moreover, whether you have established a relationship with a qualified pro or are still on the lookout for a suitable fit, don’t be lured into any fast decisions shortly after an inheritance event.

“As humans, we rarely make good decisions in times of heightened emotions," Riley said. "A death of a loved one or receipt of unexpected savings conjure up heightened emotions.”

Consider associated expenses

An inheritance can often lead to tunnel vision of dollar signs and a litany of financial possibilities.

But nothing comes free — including an inheritance. Work closely with your advisers to understand and plan for any related costs, which can be substantial and varied.

“People often fail to account for legal and other expenses, taxes and fees,” said Duell. “For example, in Portland, Oregon, personal representatives must hire an attorney to help settle the estate. Even if the estate is exempt from estate taxes, there may be property, state, local, transfer and capital gains taxes.”

Legal and administrative fees for title transfers or sales of real estate can also add up. And, added Duell, don’t assume the expenses will be less if the inheritance involves a modest amount: “These costs are especially onerous and disproportionate for small estates.”

Next, don't just think of yourself as the sole beneficiary of your share of the family's inheritance. Take steps to preserve as much as possible for the next generation. That means not only a comprehensive investment plan but also a core estate plan, including a will and possibly a living will to avoid having to probate assets.

“With your newfound wealth comes new responsibilities to prevent your heirs from having to go through a lengthy and costly process,” explained Los Angeles attorney Clay Stevens.

Communicate cautiously

If an inheritance involves several people, it can be valuable for all parties, both the givers and the receivers, to discuss how to coordinate money management and investment, the Wall Street Journal advised. As this graphic associated with the article shows, baby boomers often spend or lose 50 cents for every dollar inherited, sometimes because they didn't see it coming and mismanaged the unexpected windfall.

On the other hand, those involved should be careful with whom they share the news.

“One of the biggest pitfalls we see with inheritances is becoming a lender to extended family,” said Pedro Silva of LPL Financial in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts. “With sums of money come the requests for a ‘small favor.’ There is often some guilt involved that one person now has money and should be sharing the good fortune. Unfortunately, good intentions don't always pay back as expected.”

If that’s a concern, said Silva, don’t be shy about using a financial planner or attorney as your personal underwriter: “If someone needs a loan, they call us and tell us the details," he said. "That shields the client from having to say no to a friend or family member.”

"If they are wanting to help — or open to the idea of helping close loved ones — I would still limit what is said and to whom it’s said to," added Riley.

Another strategy is to keep to your old financial habits as much as possible, if only for the first few months. That way, you become acclimated to a greater amount of financial resources and less prone to making mistakes.

But that doesn’t mean adopting a strict austerity plan. If the mood strikes you, treat yourself to something modest — perhaps a purchase that reminds you of the departed loved one who put you in this position to begin with.

“Most people want to spend the inheritance on something. Do that but in a small way,” said Riley. “Making a small purchase for yourself has the same satisfaction and gives the same emotional reaction that a large purchase provides without the post-purchase guilt trip.”

Jeff Wuorio lives in Southern Maine, where he covers personal finance and entrepreneurship. He may be reached at, and his website is at


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