When the eldest of three sons in a wealthy family recently decided to marry someone who didn’t come from wealth, he knew he needed a prenup.
Sandi Bragar, who is chief client officer at the wealth management firm Aspiriant, didn’t disagree with the young man in his late 20s, whose family she has worked with for two decades. But before referring him to an attorney, she recommended that he and his fiancée meet with a family wealth dynamics coach.
“I suggested they do some work together so that they could both come to the table with their attorneys, when they got to the prenup time, and have reference and have a chance to think about their own personal wealth identities, what their personal values are, what their joint values are and what they want to bring to that table,” Bragar said.
The emotional toll of wealth is the untold story in many ultra-high-net-worth families. And until recently, many found talking about it extremely difficult.
“The most surprising thing to me is that people don’t talk about wealth within their family,” said Clay Cockrell, a licensed psychotherapist who works with ultra-high-net-worth individuals. “I can’t tell you how many times people have come to me and said: ‘We never really talked about money. I knew we had it, but we never talked about it.’ ”
While enormous wealth clearly has its benefits, its long-term impact on the mental health of ultra-high-net-worth families rarely gets discussed. Simply having a trusted adviser to confide in represents a huge benefit for people who sometimes have lingering negative feelings about their wealth, said Jonathan Foster, CEO of Angeles Wealth in Santa Monica, California.
“When we talk with some of these people, some remarkable things come up that the average person cannot fathom,” Foster said. “The first one that I see a lot is what I call wealth guilt: ‘Yeah, I just got hundreds of millions of dollars, and what did I do to deserve it? Look at the rest of the world. Why should I get this?’ ”
Some heirs may look back to where the wealth came from and feel ill at ease with its source, he said. “Very often it comes not only with guilt, but it augments the deep dissatisfaction with how their parents achieved that wealth,” Foster said. For example, they made it in the oil business, and you’re an environmentalist.
Others struggle with the isolation and differentness that exceptional wealth can create.
“I remember a client, when we started working together, she was telling me how uncomfortable it was to go to get her hair done because her hairstylist knew that she was very wealthy and would ask her to pay in advance because the stylist was having a hard time financially,” Bragar said.
Bragar advised her client to say her family had a policy of not paying for services before using them and then offer to refer more of her friends to the hairstylist.
“Turns out she had the same issue with her household staff, so it was a prevalent thing she was experiencing,” she said.
BREAKING FREE OF MONEY TRAP
Not surprisingly, some wealth advisers find themselves playing the role of therapists, helping guide their clients through emotional struggles that few others can sympathize with. A few even become therapists themselves.
“I’m a lawyer who can see angels” is how Patricia Woo, a partner at Squire Patton Boggs in Hong Kong, describes her dual role as both legal and spiritual counsel. As a trust and estate attorney, Woo has advised wealthy families on how to set up values-centered family offices. More recently, she acquired a degree in transpersonal psychology after realizing that some of her clients required mental health assistance in addition to financial advice.
“Three days ago, a client called in the morning,” Woo said. “She didn’t sound right.” This client had been issuing harshly contradictory requests to Woo for a while, but it took an in-person visit for Woo to figure out what was going on.
The client’s husband had been having multiple affairs, but she was reluctant to leave him due to their 30-year relationship. “To me, the priority was to be in touch with her as a person,” Woo said. “I told her it’s safe for you to be whoever you want to be right now, and it’s totally fine to not know what to feel.”
Woo’s client was angry, “but it’s normal for women to be told by the family that you shouldn’t express anger,” she said, “so they use sadness to cover anger.” With a box of tissues in hand, Woo was able to persuade her client to simplify her life and think more about the direction in which she herself wanted to go.
STRIVING FOR PURPOSE
Well-publicized research from the University of Nevada in 2020, known informally as the Mercedes study, found that drivers of more expensive “prestigious” cars had a “lower ability to interpret the thoughts and feelings of others along with feelings of entitlement and narcissism.”
This lack of empathy among the ultrawealthy can result from living in a bubble and only associating with similarly privileged people, Cockrell said.
“If a person is feeling isolated, I think that it’s important to diversify your social contacts,” he said. “Don’t just hang around with other wealthy people. Get to know everyone.”
Furthermore, Cockrell said, as wealth inequality has grown in society, wealthy people are as likely to attract anger as adoration. While the temptation is to keep one’s privilege a secret, he suggests that good mental health for wealthy individuals involves accepting their position and owning it: “ ‘This is who I am. This is what I have.’ ”
Foster indeed views such self-reckonings as a golden opportunity. “Once you are so blessed that you don’t have to worry about what the rest of the world worries about, you can focus on other responsibilities,” he said. “What’s your legacy? How do you want to behave? How do you want your money to behave for you when you’re alive and when you’re dead? What do you want it to do for your descendants? If you break that down for people, it’s kind of a cool adventure.”