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For Richer or Poorer? Rich Families Face a Marriage Problem


For Richer or Poorer? Rich Families Face a Marriage Problem - WSJ.com

Being born to the manor is one thing. Marrying one of its occupants is something else altogether.

Just ask Steven Siig, a self-described "ski bum" and extreme-sports documentary filmmaker who was living near Lake Tahoe, Calif., and scraping by as a landscaper when he met his wife, Melissa, in 2001.

Unbeknown to him, she was the oldest granddaughter of Richard Bloch, the co-founder of the tax-preparation firm H&R Block Inc.

Ms. Siig, now 41 years old, didn't tell him this right away. "We're very guarded about it," she said.

"It was kind of intimidating," said Mr. Siig, 45, when he learned of her background. "I said, 'Wow, it's someone I use to do my taxes when I do my taxes.' I didn't even know if I had done taxes the last few years."

The couple was engaged six months after they began dating, and Mr. Siig began a rapid-fire process of education and assimilation into the family—a move some financial consultants call "onboarding." Bloch family members gave him personal finance and career advice, and the couple later started meeting with a UBS AG financial adviser. Mr. Siig joined the RA Bloch Cancer Foundation board, along with his new wife, and started attending twice-a-year family gatherings in Aspen, Colo., and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.

The onboarding process is one way wealthy families are trying to smooth intrafamily relations and safeguard their fortunes for future generations. As the scions of the patriarchs grow up and get married, the importance of teaching about wealth and its preservation rises, according to families and their advisers.

The issue has taken on more prominence since the financial crisis, when families, shaken by market turmoil, began scrambling for ways they could work together to preserve their wealth. Charles Grace, a managing director of Family Office Exchange, a Chicago consulting and peer-networking group that has worked with more than 2,000 wealthy members, said that the crisis caused many families to formalize how they handle such issues in family mission statements or "family constitutions."

Some families have set up formal committees that help coordinate communication and financial education with new family members. "We're having this conversation all the time with families," Mr. Grace said. "The question of how you define your family is huge, and that includes the role of in-laws."

That, in turn, has created a growing cottage industry of wealth advisers who focus on family dynamics and other nonfinancial issues, such as inclusion for new family members, Mr. Grace said. The goal: to minimize conflict and prevent rifts from forming.

For Richer or Poorer? Rich Families Face a Marriage Problem - WSJ.com

Families often pay a retainer or project fee for this type of advice. Nathan Dungan, a Minneapolis wealth counselor, charges $50,000 to $250,000, depending on the size and complexity of the work at hand, he said. His wealth counseling usually spans several sessions. In other cases, the services are included as part of a broader package of wealth advice offered by a private bank or family office.

While much of the process takes place in the months and years after the wedding, some of the conversations happen ahead of time, advisers said—particularly the one about finances. Many families have trusts that address how spouses are treated. Others rely on prenuptial agreements to prevent assets and family-owned businesses from being depleted or broken up in a divorce.

The challenge for a wealthy family is balancing the line between welcoming new members and divulging too many secrets too soon, said Thayer Willis, a social worker in Lake Oswego, Ore., who counsels families about the effects of wealth. She is a member of the family that founded paper goods maker Georgia-Pacific Corp.

Often, the new family members "are uninitiated immigrants coming into the world of wealth," she said, and require special treatment.

The Bloch family, for example, had to accept that as a relative novice around money, Mr. Siig was likely to need some guidance. "He saw it as an opportunity to learn and grow, like he had role models now," said Barbara Stanny, Melissa's mother and the author of "Prince Charming Isn't Coming: How Women Get Smart About Money."

Some families have mini-human-resources departments, orienting a new family member the way a business would. Some appoint family-relationship managers, who usually are older and help smooth the transition by introducing the new member to the family's advisers, Mr. Grace said. Some families put young engaged couples in financial counseling.

Andrew Pitcairn, 45, a descendant of the 19th-century industrialist John Pitcairn, runs a 13-member family council that includes both bloodline descendants and newcomers and coordinates communication and financial education across both groups.

The 600 living descendants of the Pitcairn patriarch, who made his fortune in railroads and oil before founding Pittsburgh Plate Glass Co. in 1883, now have a family office that manages $3 billion for themselves and outside families. They meet every other year for a weekend retreat at a conference center near Philadelphia. At one of those recent meetings, a new spouse asked if she could get a welcome packet to explain the family she had joined.

Later this year, all Pitcairn family members will get a 20-page booklet written by family council members, including photos, information about family history and the family office, and answers to frequently asked questions. "How do you fit in and find your way into a multigenerational family like ours?" Mr. Pitcairn said. "We had to think about what we were trying to do."

Marriages in wealthy families are almost always lopsided at first, with the newcomer more often than not coming from a less-privileged background, said Anne Hargrave, a consultant at the Family Business Consulting Group in Chicago, which helps wealthy families sort through conflicts. There is plenty of room for misunderstanding, resentment and distrust if the process is bungled, she said.

Mr. Siig's experience, for example, wasn't always smooth. Eager to display his passion for filming ski movies, he screened one of his for Melissa's family at one of his earliest meetings with them, when Richard Bloch, who died in 2004, was still alive. As the credits rolled, Mr. Siig recalled Mr. Bloch grabbing him by the shoulder and telling him not to quit his day job.

"I was not the formula for the guy you want your granddaughter to marry," said Mr. Siig, who went on to found his own landscaping business, which he later sold. "When you're trying to woo a woman and you are trying to impress the family, especially if you know who they are, you have to be worthy."

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The concept of a "family constitution" seems so bizarre.

Wealthy people really have their own rituals.

Yes, seems like they do, but I appreciate the idea about being proactive in a large family, trying to prevent issues from coming up, and the money issue makes it more likely that ugly money issues can come up.

Oh yeah, I've seen families fighting over money like they're warring against a different country. 

I wonder if a family constitution mandates a family Supreme Court for interpretation.

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