Understanding Your Family’s Risk of Ruin

nightwalkIn my previous piece on effective wealth, I made the case for linking wealth to spending.

  • Individual wealth => 5 to 10 years cost of living
  • Generational wealth => 10 to 25 years cost of living
  • Multi-generational wealth => 25 to 40 years cost of living
  • Surplus (excess?) wealth => beyond 40 years cost of living

Spanning 25 years and a range of industries, my careers have had one thing in common… clients can sustain significant losses.

Early in my working life, permanent financial loss didn’t concern me.

  • I had limited assets
  • I was an employee
  • I was insured by my company
  • I was indemnified by my clients

Over time my exposure changed and, eventually, I realized that I had a significant risk of ruin.

My definition of “ruin” has changed over time. It’s worth writing out your own and discussing within your family.

For example, “losing everything I own:”

  • didn’t concern me at 25 – I had a small balance sheet relative to my future earning potential
  • would have been a huge problem at 35 – I had limited earnings, moderate personal leverage and a balance sheet containing more than 15 years cost of living
  • isn’t a problem today – low leverage, small personal balance sheet, greatly reduced cash flow deficit relative to my young family’s assets

Today, ruin consists of adverse events with my family’s human capital.

While I run our family structure, it’s a very small piece of what I do.

Because… the purpose of getting family structure correct is to enable a focus on what matters – human capital and shared experience.

  • marriage
  • kids
  • family
  • health

Get the structure right so that you can focus on things other than the structure!

  • Simple
  • Straightforward to manage
  • Cost-effective (time, expense, future flexibility)


  1. Are you worth suing?
  2. In what capacity could you be sued?
  3. What’s the nature of the losses that could be sustained by any party?
  4. What can go wrong outside of lawsuits? Personal disability, for example.
  5. Can financial, or legal, structuring reduce these risks?
  6. What’s the cost to insure these risks?

Brainstorm the answers and schedule consultations with:

  • an experienced litigation attorney – quantify and understand how you will be ruined 🙂
  • an experienced trust and estate lawyer
  • a fiduciary with experience advising families similar to your own
  • a family that has managed two successful generational wealth transfers – what does success look like when you’re gone?

Write out your notes from these meetings, discuss with your family counsel and reach a rough consensus on your family values.

Here are reading resources to help you understand family wealth.

  • Consult widely
  • Seek out smart people that disagree with you – you’ll both benefit
  • When family members disagree, pause
  • Change slowly

More on the specifics of my own journey in a future installment.