Is a life well-lived measured by how much wealth we acquire or is it measured instead by the condition in which we leave our relationships?
Leona Helmsley ran a real estate empire in New York City that included twenty-three hotels valued in the billons. She earned the nickname “The Queen of Mean” from an advertising campaign portraying her as demanding and wanting nothing but the best for her guests. The slightest employee mistake was usually grounds for firing, and Helmsley was known to shout insults and obscenities just before they were fired. Leona’s only child, Jay Panzirer, died in 1982 from a heart attack leaving her four grandchildren – Craig, Meegan, David, and Walter. Her son’s widow, who lived in a property that Helmsley owned, received an eviction notice shortly after his funeral. She sued her son’s estate claiming he had borrowed money from her and was awarded $146,092.
Helmsley died in 2007, leaving an estate valued at more than $4 billion. The majority of her estate went to the Leona and Harry Helmsley Charitable Trust. Grandchildren Walter and David each received $10 million; $5 million in trust, and $5 million in cash. The will left $12 million to her Maltese dog named Trouble which earned her the number three place on the “101 Dumbest Moments in Business” of 2007. Grandchildren Craig and Meegan received nothing.
In 2008, the court ruled Leona was mentally unfit when she executed her will. The $12 million trust for Trouble was reduced to $2 million. $6 million was awarded to Craig and Meegan and $4 million to the charitable trust. Trouble died at the age of 12 in 2011. The money set aside for Trouble reverted to the charitable trust.
How sad that Helmsley chose to alienate her grandchildren rather than teaching them how to use wealth to make the world better. Excluding Craig and Meegan from her will left them with a mean-spirited statement. Instead of being remembered for her real estate savvy, she will be immortalized on the list of “101 Dumbest Moments in Business” for leaving $12 million to a dog over grandchildren.
They will not go through life honoring the life and wisdom of their grandmother.
What a tragic family legacy.
Leaving a lasting legacy with meaning
Imagine your last day has come and gone. What kind of relationships have you left behind? Have you talked to your family about your will or are you leaving them with a lot of unresolved questions? Will your children end up fighting in court because you left your estate to just one person or to a charity they knew nothing about? According to a recent report, “Estate Planning for Complex Family Dynamics,” 40% of respondents thought the distribution of their parent’s estates was unfair, with unmarried adults most likely to feel aggrieved. Have you left nothing to a charity even though you made a public declaration that you would? If any of this sounds familiar then anger, bitterness, and hurtfulness may become your legacy.
Your silence may waste the possibility of building something more enduring than yourself. The report found only 28% of all adults said they knew the details of their parent’s wills or estate distribution plans. 40% of the parents surveyed have never discussed their estate intentions with their children.
We leave behind our wisdom and actions, which are reviewed by our family and friends for guidance. Leona’s money will not last as long as her words and deeds could have through the people she influenced. Think of what $12 million could have accomplished for the hungry, sick, and the needy. Think of how Leona Helmsley could have lived on through the actions of her grandchildren and others enabled by her money.
We will be remembered when our wisdom is woven through the lives of the people we’ve touched. The giving and the taking, the good and the bad, the teaching and the learning can go on and on through our children and grandchildren.
Long ago, when families sat around campfires telling stories about elders who had died, the legacies being transferred weren’t money and wealth, but rather something far more valuable and lasting. The only asset of value was the knowledge given equally to everyone sitting around that fire with the capacity and interest to listen and take to heart.
Parents and grandparents are the keepers of family stories. It is their responsibility to repeat the stories they have inherited and to build on those stories and insert their chapter in the book of family wisdom. Some of the most enduring families of means have mastered the process of raising intelligent, hard-working, creative risk-takers who understand that their responsibility is to take inherited wealth and grow it for the benefit of their children and their community. They teach their children to find their path and to become stewards of the family legacy and wealth.
If death were to come tomorrow, are your children prepared emotionally to receive their inheritance? We don’t want our family to be weighed down by inheritance or beholden to it or awestruck by it. Some people think it’s crazy to share financial details with their family and believe it would wreck their kids, making them lazy and indifferent to working hard, knowing what will be coming their way. We need to start treating our children as adults when they come of age. When they are taught to respect money, rather than to fear it, and to understand that wealth is earned by risking something of themselves, they are more likely to grow up to be productive citizens and not be controlled by their inheritance. Preparing them should create a deep sense of obligation to honor the wisdom and wealth entrusted to them.
If we are concerned with how the money will affect our children, then we should have the discussion now because people don’t become masters of money the day a family member dies. It must be taught and reinforced through discussion while parents are still living and able to share their wisdom.
- 40% of the parents surveyed have never discussed their estate intentions with their children.
- Our legacy will be remembered when our wisdom is woven through the lives of the people we touched.
- Those concerned with how their inheritance will affect their children should discuss estate plans while they are still living.
 Source: Leona Helmsley, Wikipedia
 Fortune Magazine, CNN Money (December 19, 2007).
 BMO Wealth Institute, March 2017