Passing on wealth

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The Victorians had some lessons for the very rich who have been produced by the wealth-creation of the past decade.

The crucial question is whether the new breed of philanthropists will turn into a new generation of Mrs Pardiggles.

Mrs Pardiggle is one of the more loathsome characters in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, the tragic story of a contested will. It is arguably literature’s greatest ever warning of the hazards of inadequate estate planning.

As well as lawyers, Dickens was also deeply sceptical about philanthropists. He divided them into two classes: “One, the people who did a little and made a great deal of noise; the other, the people who did a great deal and made no noise at all.” Mrs Pardiggle is in the former group.

She believes that true philanthropists should involve their family in giving, so she gives each of her five sons an allowance each week. But then she arranges that every penny of it should be given to a charity of her choice. Her sons never see the money. She is most proud of this arrangement, but the children are “ferocious with discontent”.

Her oldest, Egbert, “who sent out his pocket-money, to the amount of five-and-threepence, to the Tockahoopo Indians”, later pinches Dickens’s heroine in an attempt to force her to give him a shilling. “What does she make a sham for, and pretend to give me money, and take it away again?” Egbert complains. “Why do you call it my allowance and never let me spend it?”

The ultra-high-net-worth individuals of today face a new version of the dilemma of philanthropy that Dickens satirised so mercilessly.

Philanthropic dollars have ever greater social significance, thanks to the explosion in private wealth. According to the Hudson Institute, private assistance from Americans to the developing world was 3.5 times greater than the US government’s official overseas development budget in 2005.

Last year’s announcement by Warren Buffett, the world’s second-richest man, that he would combine his fortune with that of Bill Gates to fight disease in the Third World, was only the highest-profile example of the trend. Sandy Weill, the entrepreneur who put together the Citigroup empire, intends giving away all his wealth by the time he dies. Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, who built AIG into the world’s largest insurance company, is also giving away prodigious sums.

But being entrepreneurs and managers, such men want to ensure as best they can that the money is well spent. They have another problem: how to deal with their children? Despite deep human instincts, and tradition, it is no longer a given that their children should be their prime inheritors.

How does one combine heirs with philanthropic endeavours? How much sense does it make to impose restrictions that will bind into the future? How easy is it to apply the intent of the original donor in changing circumstances, decades after they have died? And should your children be the arbiters of your intentions?

These problems underlay one of the most awkward disputes in US philanthropy in recent years, when the heirs of Charles Robertson, the founder of the A&P supermarket chain, battled with Princeton University over how it had administered a $35m gift to the Woodrow Wilson School of Public Affairs. That gift was made in 1961 and grew to be worth $653m. Defining how to spend such a large sum of money in a changed world four decades later became the cause of great disagreement.

Today’s new wealthy have other worries about child­ren. The richer you are, a survey by PNC Wealth Management showed this year, the more likely you are to try to attach strings to your will. More than half – 57 per cent – of those with $10m or more in assets attach strings before their heirs can inherit. They must complete a college education, for example, or hold down a satisfactory job.

Such stipulations are important to avoid a contradiction. While more than three-quarters say they intend to leave money to their children, at the same time 62 per cent also believe it is “important that each generation take responsibility for creating its own wealth”. For the very wealthy, these two aims are incompatible. Putting stipulations on a will may resolve that conflict, but it raises the risk of behaving like Mrs Pardiggle.

Younger, more self-made entrepreneurs are the likeliest to attach strings. They are also the most nervous about leaving their children anything. The members of the Tiger 21 network of wealthy individuals, on average, favour leaving only about 10 per cent of their fortunes to their children. They worry that their child­ren need to make their own way, and that they cannot be trusted with a big inheritance.

Private banks have even turned this into a lucrative line of business. It is now a central task for them to educate heirs on how to be rich. They even hold “boot camps” in the world’s greatest financial centres to help the heirs to the very wealthy get to know each other. Parents complain that their heirs will not listen to them when they talk about money, but they might just listen to a private banker.

These are deep dilemmas. Mrs Pardiggle shows the perils of the most obvious solution: putting restrictions on heirs.

Maybe Warren Buffett has the answer. Not only talented when it comes to investing capital, he also appears blessed with wisdom when it comes to giving his money away.

Along with his donation to Bill Gates, he is also giving equal donations of shares in Berkshire Hathaway, his investment vehicle, to the foundations run by his three children. These donations could each come to total more than $1bn.

They have each done their own thing with their foundations. Susan Buffett’s foundation focuses on women’s reproductive health and family planning, for example; Howard’s gives to more than 40 countries, and has been particularly concerned with African conservation; and Peter’s focuses on human rights.

Buffett senior is prepared to let all of them carry on. His letter to his daughter (and almost identical letters to his sons) is available on the Berkshire Hathaway website.

“Dear Sooz,” he begins, “I am enormously proud of the way in which you have managed the resources of the foundation that Mom and I established for you. Your thinking has been good, and your actions have been effective in helping those less fortunate than our family has been.”

He attaches no strings. But he does offer “a couple of thoughts (but not directives)”.

He suggests she could focus funds and energy on a relatively few projects where her foundation can make a difference, consider working with her siblings, and pay attention to her home community while favouring a broad view.

This letter should be required reading at private banks’ boot camps for heirs.

Maybe even Charles Dickens would have been impressed.

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