Non Financial Aspects of Estate Planning

2016-03-09 15.23.39A friend asked me to¬†give this talk to his firm, but I prefer to write short articles. ūüėČ

When families talk about estate planning the discussion can center around cash flow, assets and tax minimization. While those topics need to be sorted, dollar-centric living can lead to regret.

If¬†you apply last week’s tips about family leadership, you might¬†discover certain realities about financial wealth.

2016-03-16 13.56.23Namely…

The highest use of¬†an asset lies in its capacity to enable better choices…

  • flexibility to allocate time towards shared experiences
  • the ability to control one’s schedule
  • the opportunity to tag along when other people are doing what they enjoy
  • health in the context¬†of body, mind and spirit


2016-03-13 21.51.50Cash flow without education, connection and meaning can be a negative. Examples are the challenges faced by lottery winners, professional athletes and young, highly paid professionals.

With cash flow, I would go further and point out that excess family cash flow will ultimately be consumed by the least responsible adults in a family system.

You might tell yourself that you are “doing it for the kids” but the money ends up being blown¬†by someone’s aunt or uncle.

2016-03-11 20.04.44-1What to do?

  • In your lifetime, use¬†money to acquire time.
  • Share time with people you wish to influence with your values. Be the brand.
  • Remember that it’s better to¬†earn, and spend, our own way in life. It’s what you did.
  • Have a bias towards “assets used for shared experiences,” rather than cash flow.

Ask the question, How do I wish to be remembered?

Be that person, today.


2016-03-10 08.52.21Shared experiences, both positive and negative, bridge generations across time.

As a child, I had¬†four grandparents and three great-grandparents. Of my childhood elders,¬†only one made the transition into my children’s consciousness. The elder that bridged across did so because¬†my daughter and I were involved in her end of life care.

Love, not money, is what travels across time.

2016-02-24 16.51.20

A Valuable Legacy

bike_dadWhen I think of the word legacy, I might see tangible assets being left to my children, family and community. This type of thinking flows from my background in finance, where success is measured in dollar bills.

As a father, I’ve come to see that many of my successes are hidden.

  • The conflict not engaged in
  • The harsh word not spoken
  • The anger not acted upon

Might the absence of certain experiences be a valuable legacy to leave my children?

  • The absent father not indulged
  • The distant mother not reinforced
  • The angry parent not encouraged
  • Keeping myself from becoming a casualty in my later years

In working on the above, I might make my kids aware of my faults, my failings and the techniques that helped me manage them.

A different, but valuable, inheritance.

Effective Wealth – Legal and Strategic Considerations

alvinIn my first¬†piece on effective wealth, I laid out…

  • 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

We hold our individual wealth in Living Trusts – these have the benefit of being fully revocable (assets in and out easily) and transparent to the IRS (easy for taxes and administration).

TIP Рfive years cost of living in a debt-free balance sheet will change your life and make you far less susceptible to corruption and influence. Once you hit ten years cost of living (in a debt free balance sheet) then you should consider cutting expenses and working part time. At a minimum, 5-10 years worth of wealth should trigger a sabbatical to consider personal wellness and how you allocate time.

Generational wealth is held in an irrevocable Grantor Trust that benefits my spouse and kids. I can’t get the assets back nor can any creditor or petitioner. In my lifetime, I retain the obligation to pay taxes on the trust as well as the ability to swap assets in/out for fair consideration. Admin is about the same as¬†managing a partnership/LLC with similar assets/earnings.

TIP Рonce you are nearing 20 years cost of living in a debt-free balance sheet you are close to the breakout point where you can stop working, forever. Now is the time to shift towards personal wellness!

Multi-generational wealth Рthis is small part of my family balance sheet, because I followed my advice at each of the above segments. We use a Private Trust Company (in a state without income tax) that oversees a trust that benefits my descendants. We also use 529 (college) accounts.

TIP Рthe first time you realize that you might be making money for your adult children STOP and undertake a life review that focuses on how you allocate time and personal wellness.


What does all this cost? Charging market rates for my work, I oversee the structure for less than $5,000 per annum. Living Trusts/Will were $5,000 to set up. Grantor Trust was $5,000. Private Trust Company and Family Trust was $10,000. These are Boulder, not New York, rates.

How does this give you peace of mind? My personal assets are the smallest of any adult in my family tree. By value, I own less than 1% of the above structure. I am free to give my family the gift of service.

I’ve said what needs to be said.

I’ve done what needs to be done.

I’m free to focus on loving those that love me.


The legal and tax consequences of an error in your family structure can be severe. Take expert, local advice. Nothing on this site should ever be considered professional advice.

Structuring A Family Pension

Ax_iglooThree questions for your next family meeting, or your financial adviser:

  1. How long of a retirement should we plan to fund?
  2. As a couple, what is our joint life expectancy?
  3. As a family, how do we invest considering our collective life expectancy?

Today, I’m going to take you into the future of your retirement, your children’s retirement and your grandchildren’s retirement.



If I make it to 63 then my wife will be 55. At that point, there is a 50% chance that at least once of us will last another 31 years. Here’s a calculator that you can use.

It’s worth repeating – as a couple we have a joint life expectancy of 31 years when I reach 63 years old (17 years from now). Today, my wife and I have a joint life expectancy of 47 years.

That’s a heck of a long time for inflation to act on our cost of living.

Inflation of 2.5% for 47 years brings each $10,000 of current expenditure up to $31,917.

In other words, despite being middle aged, our core cost of living is likely to triple across our lifetime.



The joint life expectancy of my daughters (6 and 2) is 90 years. Their cost of living is going up 8-10x over their lives.

Can I insure against the risk that my surviving children run out of money late in life?

Let’s look at a case study.

At the end of last year, I was considering an expensive vacation. I couldn’t justify spending the money on myself and the calculation that follows is part of the reason.

As a family, we can make the decision to invest $10,000 per annum. There would be no impact on my quality of life.

What could it do for my children?

  • $10,000 per annum, invested for 47 years, 5% rate of return is $1,781,194
  • $1,781,194 invested for an additional 13 years at 5% is $3,358,707
  • Over $3 million in 60 years from redirecting my vacation budget

Let’s talk in 2015 dollars. I have no idea about future inflation, let’s assume 2.5%.

  • The $3.4 million will be worth a lot less in 2075 than today
  • $3,358,707 discounted back to 2015 at 2.5% is $763,379

In case I’ve lost you.

  • The cost is foregoing $10,000 of annual expenditure for the rest of my marriage.
  • The benefit is my survivors share a 30-year retirement income with a current purchasing power of $49,658 per annum.

The payment is calculated with 5% rate of return, over 30 years, with $763,379 starting value.

It’s never “too late” for compounding to work for your family. I’m closing in on 50 and can leave a valuable form of insurance to my children by changing my current habits.



Run the exact same scenario except I have 85 years to grow the capital.

  • Invest $10,000 per annum for 47 years
  • Roll up for another 38 years (85 years total)
  • Discount back 85 years at 2.5%
  • How much income for the surviving grandkids (in retirement)?

30 years of $90,705 per annum in 2015 dollars ($1.4 million of present value, 5% rate of return).

It’s worth the effort to learn finance and tweak your wealth behaviors.


This post inspired by Nick Murray’s book, Behavioral Investment Counseling

Link to a google doc that let’s you tinker with my assumptions. Make a copy before editing.

The Do-Something Investment

Ax_snow1I saw that Clinton’s son-in-law took some big losses at his hedge fund by making bets on Greece. People are¬†speculating that the Clinton family lost a lot of money in the deal.

While the scale might be different, I see this error in every family that I get to know.

We err by making an investment to help someone “do something.”

Some examples from my own investment history:

  • I’m self-employed and have often been tempted to buy myself an office so I can have a place to do something
  • I’ve offered to back friends in start-ups so they can have the funds to create a business and do something
  • I backed myself in a low-return business, where I didn’t understand the market, so I could have something to do
  • I guaranteed the debt of a friend’s business so he could borrow additional money for his start-up
  • I purchased a property so a friend could have a job acting as my property manager

To limit the damage, I have two questions that I ask.

First: What is the purpose of my family balance sheet?

  • Maintain independence and dignity of elders
  • Educate the kids
  • Share experiences with each other
  • Produce a growing stream of cash flow to fund my future living expenses
  • Support a feeling of security and freedom of occupation

You might have a different list. I’d encourage you to write your list¬†down because the checklist might help prevent expensive errors.

Second: How well have I done with predicting my life on a ten-year prospective basis?

While my life has been rewarding, it’s path has been unpredictable on a ten-year rolling basis.

The unpredictability of life means there is value in maintaining a straight-forward balance sheet that isn’t concentrated in any individual, geography or company.

Put plainly, I’m nearly¬†certain to continue¬†to get the future wrong – especially when I try to predict my family’s needs, desires, location…


Let’s say an investment can get past those two questions.

It is time to keep it real.

#1 – Are we backing the best members of our team?

The best people don’t¬†need the help of connected parties.


There is plenty of money available for good people with good ideas.

Therefore, by definition, most family investments are focused on the weakest members of the team.

Don’t do it.

#2 РCan we afford to lose our maximum exposure immediately?

Concentration kills.

If you can’t afford to lose your full exposure, immediately, then don’t do it.


If you’re struggling to say “no” then

  1. say “yes” to spending time to help raise funding¬†from a third party
  2. lease instead of buy
  3. focus on enjoying each other’s company, rather than investing together
  4. make an introduction to an expert in the industry to facilitate a working apprenticeship
  5. pay for expert instruction

These options have had a great rate of return in my life.

Simple Wealth, Inevitable Wealth

Happy_EverythingI came across this week’s title via a book recommended in The Reformed Broker’s twitter feed. The author is Nick Murray, who’s been¬†a financial adviser for longer than I’ve been on the planet!

Here’s a link to the book on Nick’s website.

The book is an easy read and the first pass through won’t take you long. It’s a good one to share with your family and discuss. My key take aways…

Volatility isn’t loss – while emotionally painful, adverse movements in asset prices only hurt me if I sell. So long as I can¬†hold through the bottom, price movements have limited¬†bearing on my life.

Dividends are indexed income that comes from appreciating tax-deferred assets. This point really hit home. Sample yields from my portfolio:

  • US Equity – VTSAX => 1.82%
  • US Bond – VBTLX => 2.00%
  • Boulder Real Estate => 3.30%

Both the equity and the real estate have an option embedded via the potential for capital appreciation. The value of the asset can increase (or decrease), thereby increasing my total return on investment.

Nick would say the true risk on my portfolio lies at the far end because a long-term holding of bond-type assets has zero capacity for capital appreciation РI receive return of capital, taxable income and exposure to default risk.

Dollar Cost Averaging with a lump sum is only superior when¬†there’s a crash within 2 to 3 years of receipt of funds. Very similar to the advice Vanguard gave a friend of mine and something I hadn’t fully considered. My lump sum article was written at 5.5 years into a bull market and my holdback capital has an investment rate of 2 to 3 years.

If your goal is long-term wealth creation¬†then you should be close to 100% equity – this is similar to Warren Buffett’s advice for his daughter’s portfolio (90% US Equity index and 10% short-term government bonds). Nick makes the point that dividend income is indexed and we can afford to ride the volatility.

Protect your family by holding enough short-term securities so you don’t have to sell into the inevitable crashes and let long-term compounding do its work.

He also has a great example of the change in total dividends and total profitability across long periods when the market “doesn’t move.” Even when share prices are stagnant, the world makes forward progress.

The book contains very little advice on investment selection because Nick’s take home point is Behavior Drives 90% of¬†Investor Return.

This mirrors my advice to athletes – until you can do, what¬†you do doesn’t matter. Nick’s point is we focus too much on¬†the type of Investment and not enough on making ourselves better Investors.

The final chapter was the best РOptimism is the only Realism. The pessimists in our lives will claim that their views are based in reality. While fear, anger and pessimism are supported by our media, Nick makes the point that long-term optimism is the only position supported by the facts.

Lots to discuss with my family and I recommend it to your own.

How A Kid Saves $100 Per Week

Bogus BasinThe fact that $100 per week from age 12 to 30 equals $150,000 (at 5% compounding) caught my wife’s eye. She asked me to explain how one of our kids could save $100 per week.

My assumptions:

  • Colorado minimum wage is $8 per hour
  • The habit I want to support is investing 50% of net earnings
  • 15 hours a week gets us to $120 gross

Now, 15 hours a week is a lot. Most kids would learn that they need to start a much¬†lower, say 3-7 hours. That’s OK with me – it’s the habit, not the quantum that matters.

What would they do?

Right now we spend significant money/time on childcare, cleaning and yard work. All of these are up for grabs, if there’s interest.

In my wife’s case, she spent her childhood swimming – there wasn’t surplus time, or energy, for much work. Her payoff was an out-of-state athletic scholarship, a biology degree and a life-long habit of healthy choices.

Up in Canada, I started working early and continued through university. I paid local tuition, had an academic scholarship¬†and graduated in four years. My family’s¬†payoff was reduced financial support and a financially secure adult (with an advanced finance degree). My healthy habits came a lot later!

The offer I’d make to¬†my kids is dollar-for-dollar matching with their saved earnings. I’d start them with the second-grader portfolio (90% equity). Here’s the Second Grader Book link¬†– highly recommend it to adults!

Creating an early habit of working, and investing, will have a far greater return than ANY alternative uses of funds.

In effect, I’m setting up a program by which¬†my children earn financial support and learn the skills to manage money when I’m gone.

As the kids gain experience, I can teach them about investing, personal taxation, compound interest, financial accounting and asset allocation Рwith their own assets.

By allowing my family (and my family council), to follow along, everyone¬†learns the skills required¬†when I’m gone.

A Fiduciary’s Reading List

I’ve completed William Bernstein’s recommended reading from his eBook, If You Can.

The reading humbled me. With a 1st Class degree in Econ / Finance, and 20 years experience in international investing, I was left feeling intellectually arrogant and ignorant. Each of these books challenged my beliefs while explaining financial history.

I’d recommend making these books compulsory reading for your advisers and key family members.

Good people can be found in the field of finance. I appreciate the significant time that each of the authors spent to educate willing readers.

The Millionaire Next Door Рintroduces the key concepts of wealth, saving, investment and taxes

Your Money & Your Brain Рa solid summary of the latest on behavioral psychology as it relates to finance and investment Рwhy I will always fool myself

The Great Depression: A Diary Рan inside look at what it is like for a conservative, professional family to live through a depression Р2008-2010 was easy compared to the 1930s Рcould your family survive on minimal income for multiple years?

All About Asset Allocation – the early chapters¬†were the most useful – simple¬†explanations¬†of the role that volatility plays within a portfolio – reading this book, you’ll be tempted to seek the perfect portfolio mix – my decision has been to keep it simple

Common Sense About Mutual Funds Рa wealth of information РBogle picks apart the industry by making his case for simple and low-cost investing Рthe book makes one wonder how brokers and financial advisers can sleep at night Рreaders will learn about the industry structure that silently fleeces its customers

Side Note: if you worked in finance from 1980 to 2000 be sure to adjust your brilliance¬†for volatility and leverage using Bogle’s updated charts. We had one heck of a tailwind. Humbling!

How A Second Grader Beats Wall Street – don’t be fooled by the child-like title – this book will save your family tens of thousands of dollars in fees and taxes

Devil Take the Hindmost – a history of financial speculation – hedge funds in the 1860s & derivatives in the 1600s (!) – as Taleb says, we’re never going to get rid of greed, the challenge¬†is to build the system so the greedy don’t inflict suffering on the good


To Bernstein’s list, I’ll add Estate & Trust Administration for Dummies – a good primer to get you thinking outside of your own self interest.


If you are in an advisory, or trustee, relationship then tick off one book per meeting with your professional team.

Read a book, take notes and discuss how the book impacts your family (or your firm).

Challenge yourself with exposure to the best ideas available.

Studying new approaches can be painful but we all benefit from a bit of cognitive dissonance.

What Do We Need To Retire?

My post showing how a 1.2% fee differential can cost you 131% of your pension contributions inspired Paul Meloan to write an article about The Clear Value of Financial Planning. The article lays out Paul’s case for his work in the field.

To help you understand the cost/benefit relationship, have your advisers write out the dollar amounts that you’re paying in fees, expenses and taxes. Be sure they include all the soft costs that are buried in your mutual funds.

In Paul’s article, he lays out questions for a family to consider. I thought I’d answer these questions, as viewed from a life outside the box.

#1 – How large of a pool of assets do my significant other and I require in order to live in the manner which we desire for the rest of our lives?

The most important thing for you to remember is to declare victory immediately. You have more than you need and are in a position to think about the future. Many, many people are less fortunate than you. Spending time with the less fortunate will temper your needs and get you to financial freedom more quickly.

The financial services industry is built backwards from your true needs. If you listen carefully then you can hear the industry¬†say, “you can be happy tomorrow if you have more.”

Be happy now, with less.

I recommend that you flip question #1. When I¬†look at my family’s¬†net worth, I express it in terms of “years of current expenditure.”

For example, if your net worth is $500,000 (Assets Minus Liabilities) and your current expenditure is $125,000 per annum then you have FOUR years of current expenditure (500,000 / 125,000).

Why is this is a useful way to consider your position? It’s useful because it changes the conversation from

  • What do I need to be happy tomorrow?; towards
  • How can¬†I spend wisely today?

The years-to-burn exercise reminds me that the fastest way to improve my financial position is to reduce my current expenditure, not take more risk.

In terms of years-to-burn, my peak wealth was 13 years ago. I was living¬†out of a Subaru and sleeping on a friend’s floor in LA. My life was extremely simple – eat, sleep, train. It was one of the happiest periods¬†of my life and my net worth was 1/6th of right now.

It’s worth repeating… I increased my net worth by 600% and¬†feel less wealthy.

Historically, most my spending has been wasted.

  • luxury air travel
  • high-end hotels
  • excessive childcare
  • personal assistants
  • office space
  • non-performing assets
  • personal luxury expenditure (clothes, cars, boats, vacations)

I ditched most of these because I discovered that they were bandaids healing myself from a lack of satisfaction with daily living. My spending was driven by our culture rather than my needs.

Choose your hometown and your buddies carefully! I assure you that the exact same family will have needs that vary by geography. Consider:

  • Manhattan vs¬†Boulder
  • Aspen vs¬†Truckee
  • Palo Alto vs¬†Greenville
  • Santa Barbara vs Hood River

I came close to moving to Palo Alto to spend more time with my pals (love you guys and gals). It would have changed my life Рnot better, not worse Рbut absolutely different.

The more time that you spend helping people that have less than you, the smaller your retirement fund will “need” to be. There are examples of this all around us.

Finally, the benefit of wealth is not to leave work. The benefit is to feel secure enough to choose meaningful work, regardless of¬†compensation. Hang out with people that are rich in personal satisfaction¬†(artists, priests, teachers, ministers, caregivers, coaches, guides) – you’ll know them when you speak with¬†them.

#2 – What should be the composition of that pool of assets, and how should they relate to each other in terms of risk and expected returns?

You can beat all of your pals by using Bogle’s Little Book of Common Sense Investing.

As a bonus, the strategy is simple to understand and easy to execute.

If you can’t figure the book out then call Vanguard and they will help you in exchange for a fixed price fee¬†when you need help.

If you keep screwing up then get yourself a financial coach and pay a fixed fee to hold you to your plan.

We all do better when someone is watching – that’s why I have a blog.

Getting My Affairs In Order

In March, I shared a family legal structure. Even with that structure in place, there will be significant admin for your family to sort when you pass. This admin will hit your spouse and children when they are least equipped to deal with it.

Given that people are useless at administration when they are grieving, how can you make life easier for your family? 

Simplify possessions, portfolios and personal legal structure. Almost everything we have will be sold, donated or disposed. Streamlining yourself, in advance, is an act of love that will save your kids days and weeks of effort. If you have mementos that are special to you then sit down your kids, and grandkids, for storytime. Use the pictures and personal effects to make your history, their history. Without this effort, your memories will end with your passing. Your kids will treasure their memories when you pass. 

Brief your successor(s) Рconsider the roles that you play in your family (financial, administrative, emotional), who’s backing you up? Do they know it? Have you explained their role to them? Do your successor(s) have written plans and checklists to work through? It’s far easier to update an existing plan than to create one when you’re under the stress of an unexpected event.

Establish A Joint Operating Account РStart with a joint operating account with your spouse. As you age, consider a joint account with your most reliable adult child. In my family, at least half of us have bodies that outlive our minds. It’s very likely that I’ll need to hand off to one of my kids at some stage.

Consider Medical and Financial Powers of Attorney РThese roles require different skill sets Рconsider splitting. Have an honest conversation with the individual you’re considering to help you out. Are they willing, and able, to fulfil their role.

Consider Probate – If you died today then would your estate require probate? What are the costs, and disclosure requirements, associated with probate in your locale? Are you OK with that? What are the steps necessary to avoid probate?

Clear Instructions – make your Will crystal clear, simple and easily available when you pass. Brief your executor, and personal representative, well in advance.

Proactive Disclosure РHold meetings with your financial/admin attorney, your medical representative and your spouse. I’m 44 and have a quarterly state-of-the-family meeting with my succession team. Not because I expect to die anytime soon, rather as an insurance policy to lessen the blow on my loved ones if I’m taken out at short notice.

Sorting the above doesn’t make coping with death easy, but it does go a long way towards reducing the chance that your survivors are overwhelmed, or ripped off.

Be very careful with financial powers of attorney and signing rights over your assets. I’ve seen fraud within families and between lifelong friends. Establish structures that limit the ability to one corrupt individual to hurt your family. Remember that even competent people make mistakes.

When you think you’ve got everything sorted – try explaining it to a trusted friend. Once you’ve explained it to your pal, have them explain it back to you. I guarantee you’ll learn something.

Three tips for estate planning:

  1. Say what needs to be said, today.
  2. Be a hero now, not when you pass.
  3. You’ll get the greatest satisfaction from sharing gifts (in person) with the people you love.


Denver Bar Association: what to do when someone dies

Colorado Bar Association: personal representative and trustee under probate