Key takeaways

  • Inheriting significant financial wealth can be overwhelming at first, but it doesn’t have to be.
  • Most inheritors go through five stages on their journey toward learning to use financial wealth to benefit themselves and others.
  • It’s imperative to seek the appropriate support at each stage, from coaching or counseling to consulting with a trusted financial advisor.


Stacy Allred

Managing Director, National Lead of Family Engagement & Governance for J.P. Morgan Wealth Management

Discovering your parents or grandparents have willed you a life-changing amount of money can be a wonderful surprise but also surprisingly unsettling. While many imagine a financial inheritance to be a lucky turn of fate, the experience can also be overwhelming if it’s unexpected and you haven’t been able to prepare.

For those who feel overwhelmed, it doesn’t need to last forever. By methodically taking steps and seeking support, you can become more empowered to use your newfound financial wealth to enhance your life and benefit causes you care about.

Engage early and often

People who have reason to believe their parents or others are likely gifting them significant assets – but haven’t discussed it – probably feel uncertain about what may be expected of them down the road. We encourage family members to engage in meaningful conversation sooner rather than later.

Asking directly about financial wealth can create anxiety on both sides. Starting with a qualitative dialogue centered around values about earning, saving, spending and sharing money can be an effective onramp. Taking the initiative to communicate in this way could indicate to your family that you are a thoughtful and engaged financial decisionmaker, which may make them feel comfortable sharing additional information down the road.

Those giving the gift will likely welcome hearing that you’re interested in preparing yourself for a financially responsible future.

Navigating the 5 stages

This image shows the 5 stages of managing a new inheritance.

Stage 1: Getting Ready

As you begin to receive gifts or become aware of a future inheritance, emotions can range from feeling excited to jittery. It’s helpful to pause, label each feeling and, through a lens of curiosity, identify the needs behind the feelings.

Say you begin receiving annual gifts from your parents with little communication or context. It is natural to be nervous about how you should spend the money, and what your family’s unspoken expectations may be about what you should do with it.

What to do: However the response materializes, know that it’s a normal reaction to have a variety of feelings in these situations. Give yourself time to resolve emotions that surface from the gift or inheritance; it may be a strong desire to be responsible yet not knowing exactly what that looks like or unease over receiving gifted money, or it may bring existing strain in family dynamics to the forefront. Other times, the desire to create one’s path independent of family money is so strong that a pause is needed to rein in the initial emotional response. Being an effective giver or receiver is a skill and building skills requires thoughtful action.

How to create support: Tap into a life coach, a wise family member, a therapist or another person who can provide unbiased guidance. Consider making time for reflective activities like journaling or introspection.

Stage 2: Realization

This is a period of clarity when you realize you’re ready to become more active in your own, or your family’s, financial landscape.

What to do: If your parents or other benefactors are alive, consider this question: What would be a reasonable conversation to simply get the process started? Often parents either don’t know where to start or don’t want visibility into family assets to undermine the recipient’s motivation, so they hold off on initiating gift and inheritance conversations. Starting with a discussion of values and purpose (the “why”) can establish the groundwork for a follow-up dialogue about their plans and intentions.

Be sure the benefactor understands why you’re asking; reinforce that you respect their decisions, and this bit of relevant information can help you make wiser career, lifestyle or life milestone decisions.

How to create support: Your financial advisor can guide you when preparing for this conversation, helping you proceed in ways that are more likely to elicit productive communication and understanding.

Stage 3: Engagement

At this stage, you feel more comfortable showing up to learn and contribute.

What to do: Being active in the engagement stage is a core practice for success. You may start by designing a learning journey, attending family meetings or observing board meetings at your family’s foundation or business. Find opportunities to use your skills by helping with a shared family vacation home or arranging site visits to organizations your family is considering giving to. It’s okay to not know how everything works right away – by working with your family and their attorneys and financial advisors, you become more emboldened to ask questions and learn.

How to create support: Connect with financial advisors, accountants, attorneys, consultants and peer learning groups and do your own reading and research.

Stage 4: Holistic planning

This stage involves both qualitative and quantitative planning. You start to see how financial wealth aligns to your personal journey and you can begin to engage with financial wealth in ways that honor who you are and where you’ve come from.

What to do: Spend time engaging in exercises to explore, identify and document your own values. Use them to create operating principles that will simplify decision-making.

How to create support: Your advisors can facilitate these exercises and help translate values and operating principles into practical structures such as budgets and policies.

Stage 5: Evolution

Change is inevitable, and your financial needs and goals will evolve over time.

What to do: Continue to engage closely with your trusted advisors. Once you have a plan in place, regularly perform a “relevance review” to see how it relates to who you currently are.

For example, as you reach life milestones – having children, getting married, initiating a divorce or selling a business –  it’s likely time to update your financial plans. These events may lead you to devote significantly more resources to philanthropy or set aside more for your children. Continuing to update your plan is key to managing your own legacy.

How to create support: Create a checklist and consider building in the habit of reviewing it with trusted advisors annually.

Moving forward, making progress

One day, you may be in a similar position as your own parents once were: considering how to engage your family in your gift and estate plans. Giving yourself time to integrate change and building the support you need to manage your resources thoughtfully can set you up to leave your own lasting legacy. Contact your financial advisor to help you map out a plan toward greater financial empowerment.

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