Love, Money and Control: How to Avoid Family Feuds Over Money

Nationwide Survey by Merrill Lynch Private Banking and Investment Group Finds Generational Differences in Perspectives on Family Wealth and Division of Assets

NEW YORK--()--Three-quarters of wealthy families fail to discuss money and inheritance in ways that avoid misunderstandings and unintended consequences, according to the findings of a nationwide survey published today by Merrill Lynch’s Private Banking and Investment Group.

The survey of 609 high net worth households, each with more than $3 million in investable assets, found differing generational perspectives in the way families communicate, understand and make decisions involving family money. Conflicts can arise when individual perspectives are dismissed, ignored or never communicated, and when core values are not discussed.

The survey found:

  • In 52 percent of families, information about money flows in only one direction. Among those, rather than having a conversation, 38 percent say family members are typically told about money, gifts or financial decisions affecting them. The other 14 percent say money decisions are simply made for family members, usually out of a paternalistic desire to be protective or helpful.
  • Nearly one-quarter of families avoid conversations about wealth, typically because they don’t know how to start the conversation or who should initiate it.
  • Only 22 percent of families have open, collaborative dialogue about money issues that affect them, which the study found is an important step toward mutual understanding and more productive wealth conversations.

"Is There Love in Money? How Families Put Wealth Into Perspective" is a new report that includes an in-depth analysis and discussion of the study findings, as well as examples of common conflicts over money and best practices among families that communicate effectively.

Merrill Lynch found that family relationships and communications often break down between parents and children, spouses, siblings and in-laws over differing viewpoints on topics such as the division of estate assets, conditions and expectations attached to monetary gifts, the reason for signing a prenuptial agreement, and the distribution or use of trust funds in an estate.

“The real source of these conflicts, and the greatest opportunity, begins with the way families shape different perspectives about the value and purpose of wealth,” said Michael Liersch, head of behavioral finance and goals-based consulting at Merrill Lynch Wealth Management.

“Different perspectives are healthy, and perspectives matter because the way people frame information affects their actions. People may avoid sharing perspectives about wealth for fear of conflict, leading to money silence. However, the ability to voice and to hear different perspectives in a collaborative way can actually be a source of conflict reduction, ultimately leading to positive and empowering outcomes for everyone involved.”

Where’s the love?

A topic the report covers in detail is the perceived connection between love and money, and the relationship stress that can occur when family members have different interpretations about the meaning and motivation for financial gifts. The survey found:

  • More than two-thirds of wealth holders, including 69 percent of baby boomers and 78 percent of family members over 70 years old, consider monetary gifts to family members primarily an expression of their love. For these generations, it seems there is quite a bit of love in money.
  • Meanwhile, only 50 percent of millennials recognize the love in money. Nearly two in five millennials see gifting of family assets as a tax optimization strategy on the part of the giver or a means to exert influence on others (30 percent). They therefore may not understand the spirit with which gifts are given and, in some cases, may even reject or misuse whatever they receive.

“The degree that rising generation family members integrate wealth into their lives in a healthy way is influenced by their engagement in money decisions that affect them,” said Stacy Allred, a managing director and wealth strategist in Merrill Lynch’s Private Banking and Investment Group and leader of firm’s Center for Family Wealth Dynamics and GovernanceTM. “Too often, family money is shared without conversation about why or what it means. Without context, anchored in dialogue, education, values and purpose, wealth can undermine, rather than enhance enjoyment, growth or development.”

Given the connection between love and money, it’s understandable that many wealth holders would want to divide assets from their estate in a way that shows equal love for family members. Thus, fairness is an important consideration in estate planning decisions, but not everyone agrees on what’s fair.

  • Fifty-nine percent of baby boomers and 68 percent of those over 70 years old believe the fairest way to divide wealth is in equal shares among their heirs.
  • However, only one-third of millennials consider equal shares as “most fair.” Instead they believe the amount given to each person should be based on individual factors, including who has the greatest financial need, who put more time, energy and resources into the family and each person’s age, values, behavior and readiness to handle wealth responsibly.

Initiating family wealth dialogue

The study found that families often avoid conversations about wealth because they don’t know where to begin or who should start the discussion. About one-third of millennials say they feel it’s none of their business to ask, and 42 percent think only people interested in inheriting money would bring up the subject. These viewpoints can contribute to a communication roadblock.

More than three-quarters of families think the wealth holder should initiate the flow of information; however, the wealth holder also is the person they say is most likely to prevent open dialogue.

Wealth holders often hold information about their estate plans close to the vest, sharing it primarily with their spouse and then, maybe with an advisor or executor. Only 52 percent think adult beneficiaries are entitled to information about a wealth holder’s plans. When family conversations do take place, the person most likely to be excluded is the spouse or other person related to the recipient, or beneficiary, of family money, even if discussions and decisions involve them.

Families agree a productive, collaborative conversation about money should begin with discussions about how to make the most of family wealth rather than talking about the money itself.

  • Sixty-two percent of families agree education about good financial decision-making is the best place to start a family wealth conversation. This is followed closely by reviewing options and considerations for planning (58 percent) and discussing values or the reasons behind decisions (53 percent).
  • Less productive ways to start a family conversation about money are to talk about how much money the family has (45 percent) or who will get how much of it (42 percent).

A copy of the full report and detailed research findings are available at The study builds on previous reports by Merrill Lynch’s Private Banking and Investment Group and is part of an ongoing series on navigating family wealth with intention.


The nationwide survey of 609 U.S. consumers with $3 million or more in investable assets was conducted in October 2015, with analysis completed in February 2016. Merrill Lynch’s Private Investment and Banking Group commissioned Phoenix Marketing International, an independent market research firm, to conduct the survey and compile results. All data were tested for statistical significance at a 95 percent confidence level.

Merrill Lynch Global Wealth Management

Merrill Lynch Global Wealth Management is a leading provider of comprehensive wealth management and investment services for individuals and businesses globally. With 14,412 Financial Advisors and nearly $2 trillion in client balances as of March 31, 2016, it is among the largest businesses of its kind in the world. Merrill Lynch Global Wealth Management specializes in goals-based wealth management, including planning for retirement, education, legacy, and other life goals through investment, cash and credit management. Within Merrill Lynch Global Wealth Management, the Private Banking and Investment Group focuses on the unique and personalized needs of wealthy individuals, families and their businesses. These clients are served by more than 175 highly specialized Private Wealth Advisor teams, along with experts in areas such as investment management, concentrated stock management and intergenerational wealth transfer strategies. Merrill Lynch Global Wealth Management is part of Bank of America Corporation.

Source: Bank of America Corporation. Merrill Lynch Global Wealth Management (MLGWM) represents multiple business areas within Bank of America’s wealth and investment management division including Merrill Lynch Wealth Management (North America and International), Merrill Lynch Trust Company, and Private Banking and Investment Group. As of March 31, 2016 MLGWM entities had nearly $2 trillion in client balances. Client Balances consists of the following assets of clients held in their MLGWM accounts: assets under management (AUM) of MLGWM entities, client brokerage assets, assets in custody of MLGWM entities, loan balances and deposits of MLGWM clients held at Bank of America, N.A. and affiliated banks.

The results of this survey are provided for informational and educational purposes only. The opinions, assumptions, estimates and views expressed are as of the date of this press release, are subject to change, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of Bank of America Corporation or any of its affiliates. The information does not constitute advice for making any investment decision or its tax consequences and is not intended as a recommendation, offer or solicitation for the purchase or sale of any investment product or service. Before acting on the information provided, you should consider suitability for your circumstances and, if necessary, seek professional advice.Neither Merrill Lynch nor any of its affiliates or financial advisors provide legal, tax or accounting advice. You should consult with your legal and/or tax advisors before making any financial decisions.

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Reporters May Contact:
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Reporters May Contact:
Susan Atran, Bank of America, 1.646.743.0791