What’s the Right Amount to Leave to Heirs?

You’ve worked hard to create opportunities for your loved ones, and you want to make sure they enjoy the benefits as part of your legacy. So, how do you decide what amount to leave them? A Merrill Lynch survey of high-net-worth individuals says that they believe for every $100 million, $26 million is too little for one child, but $63 million is too much. Estate planning isn’t only about how to mitigate your estate tax burden or the quantity to bequeath, but in what form to leave it, in what increments, and how to prepare benefactors to make the most of their futures with it.

These are tough, emotionally charged questions every affluent family is faced with at some point, whether they have $100 million or $10 million to bequeath to one or more children, nieces and nephews, or grandchildren. Leave too much and it’s possible to create a sense of entitlement; leave too little and you could spark resentment. The right number is decidedly a personal one, both from a philosophical standpoint and in regards to each family’s tax profile.

As we noted in an earlier post, in the U.S. alone, $6.04 billion will be transferred to the next generation over the coming 30 years. These assets could be subject to as much as 40 percent of their value in inheritance taxes, with state taxes ranging between zero and 16 percent. The individuals surveyed in  Bank of America Corp.’s Merrill Lynch unit all had a minimum of $5 million in investible assets, very close to the threshold at which the estate tax is triggered.

What’s right for the next family isn’t necessarily the best course of action for yours. One might have a business to sell or to designate a successor for, another may have real estate investment property across multiple state lines. These situations require different courses of action in order to retain as much value for benefactors instead of the IRS. In some cases, beginning the distribution process during one’s lifetime via gifts and other vehicles may be the best choice after considering all parties’ interests.

Money figures aside, affluent families are tasked with ensuring heirs are properly educated on the full scope of management responsibilities for the types of assets inherited, and that they have time to recover from natural missteps that come with the territory. Structuring an inheritance in stair-step fashion based on factors such as age is one approach some families take in hopes of protecting heirs against permanent losses.

The only real way to arrive at the right number, structure and tax strategy for you and your benefactors is by discussing your options with the help of estate planning professionals. Whether your children are 5, 15, or 25, it’s not too early or too late to get started. The more time you build into the process, the longer you have to prepare everyone involved, including yourself.