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More women take charge of their finances

Special to the Palm Beach Daily News

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Susan Markin knows a thing or two about managing a fortune. When the dust finally settled after the divorce from her husband David in 2002, she was awarded half of the family's $106 million. Not a bad chunk of change for a woman who grew up in a middle-class, working family in the suburbs of Cleveland.

But wealthy women are nothing new in Palm Beach. As long as the island has been a resort destination, it has catered only to the upper class and ueber wealthy. And women, who make up more than 50 percent of the population on- and off-island, and live longer than men, have been managing money to one degree or another for, well, ever.

But the times -- and women -- have changed throughout the decades. Today instead of being quiet and mousey about the wealth in their families, many women rule the financial roost and have a say in both how the money gets spent and to whom it's left.

Sandra Fleming, president of Wilmington Trust FSB in Florida, has been managing wealth for 25 years and seen remarkable changes in the female clientele she deals with today as opposed to those in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

"I haven't seen a widow come into my office in years who did not know how to write a check. But during the early part of my career it seemed like once every month or so a widow would come in who had no idea of the wealth she had because her husband took care of everything."

Today, Fleming said, women are more open about the wealth they have and frequently work as a team with regard to how their money is managed and eventually shared or spent.

In a 2009 Women & Wealth research study conducted by Wilmington Trust, Campden Research and Relative Solutions, 40 women, ages 40 to 65 with at least one child or step-child and assets of at least $25 million, were asked about their wealth, its usefulness and what money means to them. The women in the study gained their wealth either through their own work (25 percent), inheritance (47.5 percent) or from their husbands (27.5 percent).

As important as how their wealth was acquired were the family values these women wanted to pass on. Many still worked full- or part-time and hoped to instill a strong work ethic in their children; 90 percent spent below their means and were cost conscious; and 88 percent were moderately to highly involved with the management of their family's assets. Although 78 percent grew up in families that did not openly discuss their wealth, 58 percent considered having all family members educated about wealth very important (only 1 percent thought it was not important).

Beyond the education are the common perceptions of what wealth brings. These women, however, weren't common: Only 5 percent strongly agreed that wealth was connected to their self-worth, 4 percent strongly believed that having wealth was equated to having power and 3 percent were impressed by people with a lot of money.

Also, giving back to the community ranked high on their must-do list, with 95 percent of the study participants doing so already.

Then there is the independence that comes with wealth.

"Some women view their wealth more as a source of empowerment to achieve goals and independence," Fleming said.

Markin, who was not a part of the study but enjoyed a career in computer marketing and sales, would agree.

"I think financial independence is critical, and if I did have children, especially a daughter, I would truly emphasize the importance of having your own career and having the confidence to not have to rely on anybody," she said. "In fact, I think a lot of women, and women in this town, stay married to people who don't treat them well or may not be the most loyal but they stay with them because they feel as though the couldn't survive without their husbands. So they stay for financial reasons."

If the past is any kind of prologue to the future, we'll probably see that changing in generations to come. Even in Palm Beach.

To read more articles, please visit the column archive.

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