My name is Mark Goodfield. Welcome to The Blunt Bean Counter ™, a blog that shares my thoughts on income taxes, finance and the psychology of money. I am a Chartered Professional Accountant and a partner with a National Accounting Firm in Toronto. This blog is meant for everyone, but in particular for high net worth individuals and owners of private corporations. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are written solely in my personal capacity and cannot be attributed to the accounting firm with which I am affiliated. My posts are blunt, opinionated and even have a twist of humor/sarcasm. You've been warned.

Monday, September 1, 2014

The Best of The Blunt Bean Counter - Is it Morbid or Realistic to Plan for an Inheritance?

This summer I am posting the "best of" The Blunt Bean Counter while I work on my golf game. Today is my last re-post (where did the summer go?) and I selected a post on whether it is morbid or realistic to plan for an inheritance. I selected this post because it seems to polarize people. They either think it abhorrent to consider planning for an inheritance or don't understand why it is not practical financial planning.

I recently followed this post up with Inheriting Money - Are you a Loving Child, a Waiter or Hoverer, a post that discusses four types of behaviour by those who will inherit money.


Is it Morbid or Realistic to Plan for an Inheritance?


I have written several blog posts on estate planning and inheritances, including “Taking it to the Grave,” a blog I wrote for the Canadian Capitalist, in which I discuss whether parents should distribute future inheritances in part or in whole while they are alive and “How your Family Dynamic can affect your Estate Planning”  in which I discuss how parents have to navigate a minefield of family issues with respect to the determination of executors, the distribution of family heirlooms and the distribution of hard assets.

These blogs elicited a wide range of opinions and comments that I found fascinating. Some people believe they are better off because their parents made them work for everything and they don’t want any financial assistance from their parents either during their life or after they pass away. Others state that as long as parents are careful to ensure they don’t destroy their children’s motivation, partial inheritances make sense. Finally, others say they have been sickened as they observe children waiting at a parent’s deathbed salivating at the thought of their inheritance.

All this leads me to another very touchy subject; should a child (let’s assume the child is at least 40 years old) plan their own future based on a known or presumed inheritance? To add some perspective to this issue, it is interesting to note that a recent survey by the Investors Group states that 53% of Canadians are expecting an inheritance, with over 57% of those, expecting an inheritance greater than $100,000.

Inheritances can be categorized as either known or presumed inheritances. An inheritance would be categorized as known, when a parent(s) has/have discussed the contents of their will with their child(ren) or at least made known their intentions. In these cases, while the certainty of the inheritance in known, the quantum is subject to the vagaries of the parent(s) health, the parent(s) lifestyle, the income taxes due on the death of the last to survive parent and the economic conditions of the day. (Speaking of discussing the will with your children, it is very interesting to note that my blog post One Big Happy Family until we discuss the Will which had limited initial traction, is now by far and away the most read blog I have ever written).

An inheritance may be presumed where the financial circumstances of the family are obvious. A child cannot help but observe that the house their parents purchased 30 or 40 years ago for $25,000 is now worth $800,000 to $1,000,000, or that the cottage their family bought for $100,000 many years ago can be subdivided and is now worth $700,000.
Many average Canadian families have amassed significant net worth just by virtue of the gains on their real estate purchases. These families would not be considered wealthy based on lifestyle or income level, yet their legacy can have a significant impact upon their children. Inheritances are not only an issue for wealthy families.

I think most people will agree that where an inheritance will be so substantial that it will be life changing; parents need to downplay the inheritance issue and/or manage the inheritance by providing partial gifts during their lifetime. Rarely can a child become aware of a life-changing inheritance without losing motivation and experiencing a change in their philosophical outlook on life.

Although life changing inheritances are rare, life "affecting" inheritances are not. So, should children change how they live and how they plan for the future based on a known or presumed future inheritance? In my opinion, if the inheritance is known and will be substantial enough to alter a child’s current or future living standard, the answer is a lukewarm yes, subject to the various caveats I discuss below.

I think it is imprudent to ignore reality and where an inheritance has the attributes I note above, it should be considered as part of your future financial plan. However, I would discount the amount used for planning purposes significantly, to account for inherent risks. Those risks include the longevity of a parent, economic downturns that reduce your parent(s) yearly income stream,  potential medical costs and finally, the ultimate risk one takes in planning for an inheritance; the risk of somehow falling out of favour and being removed from your parent(s) will.

Where there is a presumed inheritance, I would suggest you need to be ultra conservative if you want to plan for the inheritance, since not only are you guessing at the inheritance amount, but you face an additional risk that your parent(s) may have offsetting liabilities such as a mortgage or line of credit of which you are unaware.

So what do the experts have to say on this matter? In the press release for the Investors Group survey, Christine Van Cauwenberghe, Director, Tax and Estate Planning, says that "Knowing the dollars and cents behind your inheritance can have an impact on your financial plans. It is smart to know what you can expect so you can plan accordingly and family dialogue is a good place to start."

Ted Rechtshaffen, a certified financial planner at Tri-Delta Financial, in a National Post article I discuss below, says "he may be in the minority but he encourages clients to count on their inheritances when planning to some degree." He however, goes on to say he tells clients to be super-conservative. Finally, he concludes with "I know it goes against the grain because you are counting on money you don't have", adding, "it depends where your parents are in their life cycle and how clearly they have signalled their intentions".

I think Christine and Ted's comments clearly point out the conundrum here, for which there is no black and white answer. It is probably unwise to ignore a known potential inheritance, but because the final inheritance is subject to so many variables, you must risk assess that inheritance and discount its quantum by a significant amount, such that your planning becomes a paradoxical situation.

But what if you see no risk in your parent(s) financial situation deteriorating and you feel you will never be removed from the will, how can your financial planning be affected? For argument’s sake, let’s say your inheritance will be large enough to affect your future planning, but not large enough to affect your motivation or change your lifestyle.

The most obvious change to your financial plan may be to underfund your RRSP. Most Canadians struggle to make yearly RRSP contributions. They live in mortal fear that they will not have enough money to live the retirement they envision. But, if you know your parent(s) have enough funds to live out their life/lives comfortably, and say your inheritance will be in the $300,000 to $500,000 range, do you need to make your maximum RRSP contributions?

Other planning issues include whether you should purchase a home out of your price range or underfund your children’s education fund, knowing that you will receive an inheritance to pay off the mortgage or to pay off any education related loans. Alternatively, you may over fund your child’s education by sending them to a private school you would never had considered without knowledge or presumption of a future inheritance.

How you deal with debt could also be affected. If you have debt, should you just limit it to a manageable level and not concern yourself with paying it down? Or alternatively, should you pay it off because you can reallocate funds once committed to your RRSP, TFSA or RESP, knowing your inheritance will cover your RRSP, TFSA or RESP?

We have all heard about about the huge debt level many Canadians are carrying. Based on comments made by Benjamin Tal, deputy chief economist for the CIBC, one wonders if at least subconsciously some of this debt level in being carried because people know they have an inheritance coming? Mr.Tal in an article in the Toronto Star on Baby boomers set to inherit $1 trillion says "people talk about how much debt there is without looking at the size of the potential assets to come. Debt is relative to your income today, but your wealth tomorrow will improve when an inheritance comes."

So, have I seen people bank on an inheritance? Yes. To date, where I have observed such behaviour, the inheritances have come as expected. However, these cases may not be predictive of future cases.

Is it morbid to plan for an inheritance? Clearly, it is. Would most people rather have their parents instead of the inheritance? Yes. This topic is a very touchy subject and an extremely slippery slope, but to ignore the existence of a significant future inheritance that would impact your personal financial situation may be nonsensical.  However, if your financial planning takes into account a future inheritance, you should ensure you have discounted that amount to cover the various risks and variable that could curtail your inheritance and be extremely conservative in your planning.

Post script:


As the expression goes "Those who hesitate are lost". I started writing this blog back in late November, but could not come to a conclusion (if one can call the lukewarm recommendation I suggest above a conclusion) until recently on whether one should or should not plan for an inheritance. Thus, this blog post just sat. In the interim there have been two excellent articles on this topic. The first by Garry Marr of the Financial Post, titled Windfall no sure thing from which I quote Mr.Rechtshaffen above and another article by Preet Banerjee of the Globe and Mail, titled An inheritance should be a windfall, not a financial plan.

In Preet's article he notes the potential flaws of incorporating an inheritance into your financial plan. He also concludes with some words of wisdom "There are enough variables affecting your own financial success. Ideally, you shouldn’t bank on an inheritance in your financial plan, but rather treat it as an unexpected windfall. Most people would rather give it up in exchange for having their parents back".

The blogs posted on The Blunt Bean Counter provide information of a general nature. These posts should not be considered specific advice; as each reader's personal financial situation is unique and fact specific. Please contact a professional advisor prior to implementing or acting upon any of the information contained in one of the blogs.