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Managing family wealth, TV style

By Dian Vujovich
Special to the Daily News

When the 2015 TIGER 21 Annual Conference gathered at The Breakers earlier this year, this high-net-worth group of investors made an offbeat discovery: One teaching tool used during a wealth management session were segments from popular television shows.

It turns out, TV land can teach us about intergenerational wealth management whether you're a multimillionaire -- as those attending the conference were -- or not.

Week after week, suspense and anticipation keep us watching such programs as Masterpiece's Downton Abbey and ABC's Grey's Anatomy. But look beyond those post-Edwardian era fashions and modern-day scrubs and you'll find scripts that focus on evergreen subjects such as money and wealth, and family squabbles over both.

Take Grey's Anatomy. In one episode, Dr. April Kepner is blindsided by fiance Dr. Jackson Avery when she learns from her future mother-in-law, Dr. Catherine Avery, about their enormous family wealth.

Mama Avery asks if April is aware of the decisions, consequences and responsibilities she will face as a new family member. She will have to address: a prenuptial agreement, the religious upbringing of future children and whether the values taught to their children will align with the family's and those who sit on the board of the Harper Avery Foundation.

'Combine their lives'

"The episode was a little dramatic, but what you saw was a young lady who thought she was marrying a guy and simply going to combine their lives individually together," said James Grubman, founder of FamilyWealth Consulting and presenter of the "You, Me and We: Understanding Family Wealth Across Generations" program at the TIGER 21 conference.

"But what she discovered was coming out of middle-class life, and unbeknownst to her, she had entered a world that had things like pre-arranged governing structures and processes related to her children who were not even yet born," said Grubman, who holds a doctorate in psychology.

Move to Downton Abbey and there are similar financial differences between members of the Crawley family and the servants downstairs.

"I think Downton Abbey isn't so much a story about a rich family as it is the clashing of cultures," said Tom Rogerson, Wilmington Trust's senior managing director and family wealth strategist. "It's not between the upstairs and the downstairs but between the stairs that I find most interesting."

One of those clashes: marrying outside of your economic class. The romance between Lady Sybil Crawley and Irish commoner Tom Branson is a perfect example of how time and love can bridge gaps.

Frank Rodriguez, founder and CEO of Corporate Creations and a conference attendee, is a huge Downton Abbey fan. He noted how through Tom and Sybil's marriage, Tom's radical, rebellious nature is softened by their love. As a result, Sybil's father, Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham, eventually embraces him as a family member.

'Had less money'

"Tom really isn't that different than Robert is. It's just that he had less money," said Rodriguez, whose firm is the nation's third-largest provider of registered agent and compliance services.

As these television series depict, finding love between the stairways is becoming more and more popular. And melding the two is more challenging.

Rogerson remembers a time when the children of his Palm Beach clients typically met their prospective spouses at social functions or debutante balls. Today, that's not usually the case.

Many [children] are meeting their spouses at college. And many are coming from different economic backgrounds. That's a challenge," said Rogerson, whose family has weathered socio-economic financial challenges of its own.

Meeting those challenges can begin by inviting everyone -- including prospective family members -- to a meeting. There, it's important to understand and acknowledge each individual's likes, dislikes, talents and backgrounds -- whether you approve of them or not.

On that score, Rogerson reminds us: "There's always something you can find that you like about someone, and I encourage people very quickly to look for it."

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