The most important skill in working with wealthy families-whether the issue is financial or social-is teaching the family members how to communicate. Or so says Judith Schulman-Miller, a clinical social worker and marriage and family therapist who has been working with clients for more than 30 years. Recently, she's been working with the clients of financial advisors as well.

The method she uses is called the family systems approach in psychology. And her chief tool is a diagram called a genogram. The genogram, which resembles a family tree, includes much more than birth order, says Schulman-Miller, who teaches post-graduate students in child psychiatry in the medical school at the University of Alabama in Birmingham. The diagram is an intergenerational family map that shows relationships between family members as well as family diseases such as diabetes, depression, breast cancer, alcoholism and heart problems. It also shows the emotional characteristics of different family members as well as social and family issues that link various members.
For example, it might include details of critical events in the family or in the life of a member or a unique talent, such as musicianship, that runs through the family. All of this information is represented by symbols and notations so that a counselor can decode the genogram and get insight into that family. (You can get more information on this tool at

Interactions between family members determine how the family works, Schulman-Miller says. "It's systemic, and you have to look at the whole thing."

Charles Haines, president of Kinsight, a family wealth planning firm in Birmingham, Ala., began to look to the family systems approach as perhaps a better way to do planning for the client's entire life rather than just his financial life. "I wanted to get away from the argument of whether we should do life planning to how we should do life planning," Haines says.

Haines, who has been a financial advisor for 28 years, is particularly interested in working with families so he can help them avoid the pain of his own family. "I'm inspired by my family to help others avoid the carnage we lived through," Haines says. His father and aunt grew up in great wealth, which was largely dissipated when his grandmother and grandfather divorced early in the 20th century. His grandmother went on to marry a very wealthy man, Charles Marsh, a Texas power broker who served as a consigliere and financial supporter to a young politician named Lyndon Johnson. Haines' grandfather managed a citrus orchard in Florida. Of course, the Marsh money did not come down to the Haines family. For reasons Haines does not wish to discuss, his father and his father's sister did not talk to each other for the final 10 to 15 years of their lives. Haines says that the fracture in the family could have been avoided if they had met with someone like Schulman-Miller.

When a new family approaches Kinsight, Haines conducts one or two meetings to discover whether they fit his model. Kinsight turned down a couple of clients last year. "The type of client we don't work well with are the ones who show off their money and focus on their money and status," he says. The first meeting comes about two weeks after the client signs on with Kinsight. This is a two-hour meeting where Schulman-Miller presides, collecting information for the genogram, and the financial advisor takes notes on financial details. Everything goes into the family's file. "We collect family stories and details about family finances," Haines says. "We ask if their dreams and values are represented in their financial plan.

"Our society doesn't have much sympathy for wealth," he says. "So we want to create a safe environment for them."
Kinsight's less wealthy families-those with $1 million to $8 million-work as a couple rather than with the whole family. A client family will typically meet quarterly with a couple extra meetings thrown in, Haines says. Kinsight has "broken through the $100 million mark." At that level, there's almost constant meeting and all the non-financial issues dominate.

Schulman-Miller works with every Kinsight client. Before the client signs on, a Kinsight advisor explains the entire planning process, beginning with the first meeting. "We don't treat it as a therapy session, which it's not," Haines says. "We say that all this information helps us do a better job as an advisor." If a family needs more therapy, Haines recommends Schulman-Miller. "We're not trained for that," Haines says. "We might step right on a land mine."

While the family systems approach is not new, it fell out of favor during the latter part of the 20th century when many therapists saw the family as toxic. The idea was that the individual should be removed from the family so he could get well. The problem with that approach is that the family is a living organism. Treating an individual does not heal the family. The "healthy" individual goes back to the family and someone else gets sick. The family still has the same problems. "It was like pushing down on a balloon and when you got it in place, something else popped up," Haines says.

In her therapy sessions and teaching, Schulman-Miller compares a family's healing to learning to do a ballet. In the past, the older generation rarely danced with the younger generation, she says. The therapist's job is to look at the intersections between family members, observe where the communication is falling apart and give each family member a better way to communicate. She points out that a dysfunctional family need not resign itself to a life of misery. By working on communicating, the family can become healthy. "History is not destiny," she says.