Bridging Generations: Family Conversations about Wealth and Shared Values

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In this episode, Liam McCormick discusses the importance of intergenerational conversations about family stories to build resilience in families and to prepare for the transfer of wealth. We look at the crucial, yet often overlooked, conversations about legacy within wealth transfer. McCormick offers unique strategies to bridge generational gaps, turning complex wealth planning into opportunities for meaningful family bonding.


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UBS Financial Services Inc. is a subsidiary of UBS Group AG. Member FINRA/SIPC.


Katy Smith:
[0:00] Liam, thanks so much for being with us today and to recapture some of the themes that we talked about when you visited us in Greenville a couple of weeks ago.

Liam McCormick:
[0:09] Oh, it’s an absolute pleasure to be here and to talk to you and to your community.
It’s something I’m really passionate about, is helping families talk about wealth and avoid some of the challenges that wealth and wealth transition can cause.

Katy Smith:
[0:30] Wonderful. Well, you’ve worked with so many families who have developed financial plans regarding what will happen to their wealth when they retire or sell a company or after they pass away.
And I suspect a lot of the folks you work with think heavily about the technical aspects of conveying their wealth to their children and to the next generation.
But I wonder how many talk with you about family values and that bigger meaning of what they want to pass on to their heirs.
What do you hear from families that you work with about this contemplation and how does it apply to families no matter what kind of assets and resources they have?

Liam McCormick:
[1:04] The first thing to say is that families don’t, in general, talk about this.
They do do the planning. We know that what is top of mind for many families is to do this efficiently and they don’t want to have the transfer of assets to go badly; they want it to go well.
Many families don’t actually talk to their heirs once they’ve created that.

[1:37] And some of the questions that are on their mind are things like, how much is enough? How much should I give my heirs?
You know, where estate planning involves charity, which it often does, especially if you want to avoid some of the bigger numbers with tax, is how do we know that my heirs won’t give to organizations or things which I’m not comfortable with?
So those questions they can’t control.

[2:06] And the other one we hear a lot of is, how do I know that my wealth isn’t going to damage the work ethic or create an entitlement with the next generation?
So those are the things they’re thinking about when they are preparing for wealth transition.
And of course, as you say, most of that comes down to values.
How do I know that my heirs share my values?
Because often they look, we all look at our children and go, gosh, they’re so different to me or have a different set of values.
They do things differently.
But in reality, they grew up in your home.
The real question is how do I start talking about it?

[3:22] They’ve got all these questions on their mind, but they don’t know where to start.

Katy Smith:
[3:26] I mean, this is really the most important role of a parent or grandparent, but having an overt conversation about it can be difficult.
So how do you advise folks that you work with to begin the conversation if they haven’t had it already?

Liam McCormick:
[3:42] There’s a number of different ways. When you speak to families, people don’t like talking about money, they don’t like talking about themselves not being here.
No one really sits around contemplating their death when that’s going to happen, then talk about it. So it’s a very awkward subject.
So those who think death, you know, and money are sort of the taboo subject.
So it is hard, but sometimes the entry point can be gentler.
We use different tools to do this, but sometimes just talking about your childhood and talking about stories of family significance.
So, and the thing for grandparents, I always remind them is that they span six generations in that they remember their grandparents.
And if they have grandchildren, that’s six generations. So they are an important key in connecting what the family values are.

[4:46] So grandfather, you know, came here with nothing, created this, you know, worked hard and created this company with these values.
And you’re sharing stories about this time, he did this, and he did that, and then grandma was doing this, and you’re sharing these stories.
And by sharing these stories, you are, and then how they perhaps transitioned to, well, if they did that, they set this up, they did this.
Or I had a conversation with my brothers and sisters.
So you’re talking about something that’s already happened, what went well, what didn’t go well.
And another way is simply to just start asking questions, have a set of questions, which is more conversational.
What we do with our clients, and this is more intentional.

[6:00] Because one of the challenges we often find with families, and with all families, I’d say all families, there is that gap, which I mentioned, between one generation and the next.
And sometimes, through lack of communication, and I say communication, they communicate in some ways really well and other ways not so well, but helping to understand how big that gap is, often it’s not as wide as people think it is.
They think there’s a big wide gap, and it’s not.
And so being able to get a third party in who can do that, and it doesn’t have to be someone, I mean; obviously, we do this as a service to our clients.
It could be a friend or another family member, but to just sort of, sometimes when the third person’s in the room, it’s easier to have those conversations.
Somebody who’s not so directly involved.
But when we speak to individually, speak to all of the G2 or whoever the next generation is, we speak to them and go, well, we’d love to talk to mom and dad about this, but we don’t know how to do it.
You know, it’s their money, it’s their wealth, we don’t feel we’re entitled to it.
And then when you speak to the parents go, well, they never ask us about this.

[7:14] They never, they don’t seem interested in what we’re doing.
And you go, well, actually, they are interested, but they don’t know how to show that interest. How do you do that without feeling entitled, without all of those fears, which they’re worried about.
And then they say, well, what about the, what about the will?
Look at them; they’re asking about money.
So sometimes just knowing the territory, what is the terrain here? How close are we?
And then doing, as I said, the sharing the stories and not going directly into the content, the numbers and things like that, but saying, hey, well, there is a trust or there is a plan.
Without the numbers.
So you can start at different points and bring people closer together.
So the gentle conversations with each other. And every time I do this, I find that the following generations are, desperate is the wrong word, but they’re certainly curious.
And they really want to be involved. But they just, again, don’t know how to ask in a way that doesn’t feel entitled or going, you know, like the prodigal son, you know, can I have my inheritance now?
You know, those kind of thoughts. So that’s often bringing people closer together, and finding out where people are is really helpful.

Katy Smith:
[8:32] I love that example. I think there’s so many times in families where there are things people want to talk about, but they’re so worried about how the other party, the other generation, will respond.
And if you can just start to open that door around communication on a topic that doesn’t even have to do with that, it sort of loosens folks up to get into those deeper layers of conversation.
And talking about family stories sounds like a great way to do that.
[10:08] Something about the family stories across generations. I have not thought about that.
Six generations because of people being able to look back to stories from the tens and twenties that children today would not know.
I would imagine that when an older generation tells those stories, it puts them back in how they felt when they were teenagers, starting their career, young parents, and maybe elicit some new empathy for their own children as they put themselves back in that seat.
And it probably helps the children say, oh, gosh, Mom and Dad once had these flaws and weaknesses and struggles they overcame.
I think that would just put everyone in the right mindset as well.

Liam McCormick:
[10:48] Definitely, I think it builds that connection because I think, you know, we’re talking about how difficult these conversations are.
Another exercise which I think is useful with those family stories, not just telling the stories, but then kind of examining the stories and saying, hey, here’s the story of how I started the business and this and that, it doesn’t even have to be that.
My first job, I got my first job delivering papers, and I spoke to the boy who was delivering before me, and I made a relationship, and he handed it over to me when he went off to college, whatever the story is.
And what you can then do with the next generation is sort of say, what values are in that?
What have you learned from that story? So rather than saying, hey, our family values are work ethic, integrity, you know, but they’re great. That is good.
But using a story to extract those values, it anchors it in there.
So when they are, you know, that age or thinking about how did, how did, oh yeah, grandpa, the work ethic that we got, that, that was from, you know, building relationship or being relational or, you know…

[11:57] The story is almost a compass when you’re in that place, which you haven’t experienced before, but oh, dad, grandpa, grandma, mom, you know, they have, and it’s more likely with teens to be honest, let’s tell a sporting story.
You know, my son is playing nursemaid today cause he just had a knee operation yesterday.
He’s only 16, he ruptured his cruciate ligament. Now, I did that when I was 21.
And maybe it’s a family genetic weakness. So I was able to say, look, this sucks. There’s no two ways about it.
But this is how I overcame that I remember. And it was a funny sort of signal because I’d forgotten.

[12:42] He triggered a bunch of stories in me about my recovery and just relentless, boring exercises, standing up, sitting down, standing up, sitting down, all of those things.
But I think has given him the comfort; he seems very relaxed and sort of getting on with it. He’s a confident boy anyway.
But I wonder if those stories of, hey, dad did it, and he went on to do all these others.
It’s not the end of the world. It’s not the end of my sporting career.
So that’s a small example.

[13:09] But it happened, they’re encountering something which is new.
You know, it’s, it’s difficult. And it can be challenging, because You know, your world has potentially ended in one way, but a new door has opened, and somebody else has walked through that and done that very close to them.
So that’s an example of how that can be that guide star, an encouragement, particularly later on in life, maybe when mom and dad or grandpas aren’t around, but they have that story, go, this is not the first person to experience this.

Katy Smith:
[13:46] What I think is beautiful about the conversations and those family values is that is what is most precious in any family, far beyond money.
It’s that sense of belonging, sense of identity, and connection that you take with you, that every single family can create.
And I wonder if you can tell us a little bit about some research around conversations and family questions and how those are hallmarks of a family’s sense of strength and identity and how families can cultivate that.

Liam McCormick:
[14:11] That is a great question because I’m not sitting here as some wise person.
This is research that I’ve read and tried to incorporate into our work.
And it comes out of Emory University to an amazing professor there, Robyn Fivush, who has created the Family Narrative Lab.
And her research is really interesting because they framed 20 questions which they asked young people about their family, in particular about their parents.
And she called them the do you know questions.

[14:47] And they are things like, do you know how your parents met? Do you know how your grandparents met?
Do you know where your parents grew up?
And there’s these 20 questions, and she scores them on how much information they know about their family and their family story.
There’s some strange questions in there, but they’re kind of interesting questions.
And the research showed that families or young people that could answer those questions in more detail had more resilience. They were more resilient to life.
They had more self-awareness. You know, they had this idea.
They knew the story, their family story, and they knew their part in that story.
There’s a great quote that says we live in the stories that we tell ourselves. That’s Grant Morrison, who’s a comic writer; anyone who reads comics will know.

[15:49] But we’re all born into someone else’s story.
So just acknowledging that and knowing that story, to me, helps you understand.
Now, it doesn’t mean that you are not an author of your own story, but knowing where you are is really helpful.
So that research and those questions, it just instinctively makes sense to me that those things about resiliency, self-awareness, and that sort of sense of self-worth.
Is increased because the world increasingly tells young people that you’re not worth anything or you’re not as valuable.
Look on social media, you see them looking at other people who live in more glamorous, sparkling lives.
And so having that anchor and knowing who you are is really helpful.
And so those questions, they are on the family.

[16:49] She has a wonderful website, the Family Narrative Lab; you can see them and just use those as a template for Christmas.
I mean, I hesitate to say Christmas or Thanksgiving, because we don’t want to have deep, you know, challenging conversations, but these are quite lighthearted in terms of, hey, especially if it’s a family setting, and that you can ask those parents, hey, how did we meet?
And you’ll find that each child has picked something up, well, I had some details wrong, some were right, some were terribly wrong.
That’s not quite right, you know?
It wasn’t in a bar, you know? Or whatever it was.
So and then it’s an opportunity to correct and sort of reinforce.
And I think we all know that we get more interested in our family stories as we go up.
So sometimes we do need to hear those stories three or four times.
And Robyn, when I spoke to her, said to me that, you know, don’t be put off by the fact that you’re telling a story and your teenager or young person’s sitting there rolling their eyes going, oh, mom, not another story about when you scored the winning shot in basketball or whatever it is. We’ve heard this a million times.
She said, that’s how they’re meant to respond. But they are listening.
They are listening and watching everything.
So, you know, persevere.

Katy Smith:
[18:16] That is beautiful. We’ll link that in the show notes for today.
Hopefully people are feeling very motivated to have some of these really special conversations when they’re together with family.
But if they can’t see it coming up naturally, Liam, can you recommend any tools for people to use to help introduce this over Hanukkah, Thanksgiving, New Year’s celebrations?

Liam McCormick:
[19:24] There are a few tools. At UBS, we have something called family conversation cards.
It really gamifies those conversations, and there are others on the market as well, which basically ask a series of questions.
So rather than grandma, leaning across to and saying, what grades are you getting?
And what colleges have you decided to go to? It’s like, oh, gosh…
It gamifies it. So there might be questions about me, and you pull a card out and there might be, what was your first job?
What did you do with your first paycheck?
And so that becomes like, you know, and then you can decide whether everybody answers that card or each person has their own questions.
So that’s one. There are quite a few tools out there.
And I can send some other which are available.
But what I found really useful, it’s a great gift, actually, particularly when you’re thinking about your parents who maybe have accumulated quite a lot of things, what could I possibly give them?
And there’s another great resource called Storyworth.
And Storyworth, it’s an online tool where you go in and you can buy, I think, I can’t remember, I think it’s about $100 for a subscription.

[20:52] But they will, and then on there, there’s a bank of thousands of questions, but you can also write your own questions.
And they will email the recipient. So in my case, I did it for my mom.
And she writes every, I think they get a question that’s either every two or three weeks, they get a question. They can choose how often they get it. And that question might be, what’s your first memory of your parents, or what do you remember about your grandfather?
The question was… I never knew my grandfather.
So he passed before I was born. And she wrote an extensive story about him.

[21:35] And it was interesting because he was a beekeeper.
I like keeping bees. I didn’t know that about him. There was other things he was, you know, he enjoyed, you know, growing vegetables, and I tried my hand at that to not to say a big success.
But a bit like I was saying earlier on, I thought, wow, that’s my grandfather did that.
I’m doing that. And it just made me have a sense of connection to a person I’ve never known.
And maybe those genes run deep. And so, but at the end of the year, all those stories are collected by Storyworth. And mum has also gone through and added pictures, you can do also, and you get a book.
And actually at the end of the year, I did this maybe two years ago, she said, can you extend it?
I’d love to have it. And I was, oh, that’s another present sorted.
So being a man, not being great at buying presents.
So it’s been the gift that keeps giving.
So that is a great resource. Is there really another gentle way of doing this, of capturing information?
And now my brother and sister go, I want a copy. Well, how come you’re getting all these?
You know, so it’s been it’s been really good as well, because then that does have space on there for people for us to comment on the story and ask for more information.
So that’s for us and our family. That’s been a tremendous gift.

Katy Smith:
[22:54] Wow, I thank you for that idea. And if my family hears this and is not so surprised now when they open this on Christmas morning, I think it’ll be well worth it, though.
What what I love about that is back to the the quote you shared from Grant Morrison about we live in the stories we tell ourselves and your point about our children living in this context as they always have for millennia of their peers. But now, with this larger world of social media, kind of reminding that this is like a trilogy, you know, yes there was a novel before you, but now here you are continuing that writing your own path, but it just sets that larger family context that is so beautiful, so special this time of year, but of course, always, because it leads to a more resilient family.

Liam McCormick:
[23:43] Yeah, I mean, it’s interesting, though, because we are, you know, this holiday season.
If you think about, we’re in Advent at the moment, so Advent is a story of waiting, and so each day there’s another revelation of the story.
And whatever your perspective, how do we learn about who God is, the Christian version of God?
And it’s through a story, a story of a baby, a baby that becomes a man.
So it’s exactly what we’re talking about, how story helps us get our head around really difficult philosophical, but also understanding of who we are and the story we’re part of.

Katy Smith:
[24:41] That is so beautiful. Well, and the nice thing is if you’re listening to this episode sometime in the middle of 2024, anytime, these stories can always be shared.
They can be shared from the front seat to the back seat of the minivan.
They can be shared while you’re sitting waiting for the next soccer game to start. I mean, there is always the opportunity to talk.
And Liam, I’m so grateful to you for helping families and for helping us know how to have those really beautiful, valuable conversations.

Liam McCormick:
[25:09] Oh, it’s an absolute pleasure. And I wish everyone well and courage just to ask, you know, those questions. It doesn’t have to be deep and meaningful.
And sometimes just the little ones are just as valuable.
So don’t be intimidated by jumping into the deep end.
Start, build that muscle of just asking questions and listening and accepting some of the things, especially with that teenager who’s not ready and just, it’s all good.
They are listening and watching and do engage.

Katy Smith:
[25:44] Love it. Thank you so much, Liam, and happy holidays to you.

Liam McCormick:
[25:47] Happy holidays. Thank you.

Catherine Puckett: Simple Civics: Greenville County is a project of Greater Good Greenville. Greater Good Greenville was catalyzed by the merger of the Nonprofit Alliance and the Greenville Partnership for Philanthropy. You can learn more on our website at This is a production of Podcast Studio X.

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