In January, The Wall Street Journal carried an article with the headline, “Can You Trust Your Kid With $5.25 Million?” The article went on to discuss the generous new estate tax laws. Seems that under these rules, taxpayers can shelter $5.25 million ($10.5 million if they are couples) by either gifting or leaving that money to a child by way of a trust.

The problem? Many parents don’t believe their children are capable of handling that much money. Even knowing it’s coming to them would likely reduce the kids’ ambition to become successful on their own. So some parents are setting up “quiet trusts,” whereby the children won’t know about their inheritance until age 30 or 40 … or even 50!

Is this a good idea? Not according to Thayer Cheatham Willis, a therapist and wealth counselor who works only with those who inherit enough that they need never work. Willis, who grew up in the family that built Georgia Pacific Lumber, saw the dark side of wealth as a child when too many troubled teens in her swank neighborhood committed suicide. After working through her own issues growing up in a wealthy family, Willis earned a master’s degree in counseling to help others with wealth find themselves and heal family wounds. Open communication is the bedrock of her work, which is why she thinks it’s wrong to hide money from children.

“Secrets are rarely justified, and only justified when revealing them is destructive to family closeness and values,” she says. “Communication and trust are the building blocks for healthy family relationships.”

Willis recently published her second book, Beyond Gold: True Wealth for Inheritors, in which she stresses the importance of focusing on self-discovery and building healthy family relationships for the wealthy clients she serves. The book explores many of the problems afflicting wealthy families: jealousy, envy, isolation, guilt, the lack of communication among family members, and the children’s lack of self-esteem and self-confidence. “It is designed for the motivated inheritor who is ready to dig in and do the work needed to grow,” she says. “I am already using it in my work with families, and I am confident that inheritors can work their way through it on their own too.”

She says, however, that it’s been the professionals working with families who have really been ordering Beyond Gold (the follow-up to her first book, Navigating the Dark Side of Wealth).

She wrote Beyond Gold for two reasons, she says: “One, I want the exercises and activities I have developed, which now are tried and true, to be available more widely than to just my clients.” Second, there are “many professionals crowded into the field of helping wealthy families who are not very good at what they do. This book may help them and/or it may help some wealthy families get the help they seek without wasting time” with the advisors who are not helpful.

Many clients come to her, she says, because other advisors belittle their problems—telling them they are lucky to be wealthy, for instance, or that their wealth can overcome “minor bumps in the road.”

At a conference one time, Willis was seated at the same table as a well-known wealth counselor and psychologist, who said, “All wealth creators are control freaks.” Willis said it wasn’t true. “I pointed out to him that my own father was a wealth creator and was not a ‘control freak.’” Those stereotypes, put forth by someone who is supposed to be an expert, are not helpful to family members, many of whom already feel different, she says. Other assertions about the wealthy—that they never need be unhappy—create many of the problems that wealthy families and individuals are struggling through.

A client came to Willis about two years ago who needed help preparing her young adult boys for their inheritance. The client said she was disgusted by the ineptitude of her former advisors. “It turned out that she had many issues herself with her own inheritance,” says Willis, who helped her work through it. The woman sent this letter:

“Popular culture holds that rich people don’t have problems because, after all, they have won the cosmic lottery. Even trusted professional advisors minimized my difficulties, pointing to my wealth as though it somehow insulated me from the troubles and cares of ‘ordinary’ people. Thayer Willis was different. As someone who has lived in the peculiar gilded cage of wealth, Thayer brought both empathy and experience to our conversations.” 

The exercises in Willis’ book are aimed specifically at inheritors. For instance, some may have difficulty developing close relationships because their fear of people’s motives gets in the way. Some young women have told Willis, “My father told me not to trust any man because all he wants is my money.”

I looked through the exercises myself, many of which deal with family attitudes about money, how we absorb them without sorting through them and the harm they do because of that. I’ve done work with the psychology of money before and I understand the traps set by my father, who believed anything worthwhile could be bought with money and that you should buy as many glitzy things as you could afford, and by my mother, who believed we should each take a vow of poverty and live in the image of Christ.

Not surprisingly, I developed a schizoid approach to money. I was amused to find that one of Willis’ exercises asked readers how often they felt like this: “When I think about my wealth, I feel guilty.” I answered: “Sometimes.” Of course, I have no wealth at all, but I do feel guilty when I think about people who can’t afford to eat or put a roof over their heads.
This helped me imagine the conflicts I might feel if I had several million dollars: I would want to fix everything and I’d end up being unable to prioritize, just like someone who wins the lottery.

I have had two encounters with great wealth. In one case, an heir to the IBM fortune, whose name was “Watson,” worked as the coach for my daughter’s high school crew team. He lived modestly and privately and just wanted to be a regular guy. Eventually, though, the parents found out about his background and he felt he had to leave. Some of the parents asked, “Why did he let crew parents pay for the meals when he is so rich?” Or, “He sure was always eager for his paycheck, even though he obviously didn’t need it.” Or, “Why didn’t he buy any new boats for the team?” And of course they said, “He could have afforded to do a lot more for us.”

How do people get such twisted ideas about wealth? I imagine that any person who comes in contact with ultra-high-net-worth individuals has some troubles along this line.

In the other case, my daughter’s best friend in high school married into great wealth and now travels all over the world. She has several homes, including one in Barcelona. This woman’s high school friends, who were never such great friends until she married this guy, say things like: “Why hasn’t he ever bought me anything?” When friends go shopping or out to eat with this couple, they expect the husband to pick up the tab for everything for everyone.

Even settling into a new community can be dangerous, because if someone’s TV or car breaks down, or they are about to be evicted from their home, neighbors might expect the “rich” neighbor to bail them out.

How to live a normal life, then? In her book, Willis gives dozens of examples of clients she’s worked with, helping them gain clarity about both themselves and their money. Much of the book focuses on family issues. It discusses how to teach children about money, how to work out issues between spouses with vastly different amounts of wealth, how to deal with wealthy parents who want to make all the decisions for children and grandchildren. Willis herself married an “ordinary person” just like the rest of us, and she offers many tips on working through the inevitable problems. It’s a worthwhile read for anyone who works with—or is intimidated by—ultra-high-net-worth individuals.

Mary Rowland can be reached at [email protected]. She has been a business and personal finance journalist for 30 years and has written two books for financial advisors: Best Practices and In Search of the Perfect Model.