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Clients Value Passing on Stories More Than Wealth

The glue that holds families together has a value of its own.

When your clients are thinking about what they want to leave to those who come after them, what do they care about more?: family stories or financial wealth.

According to a study by the Allianz American Legacies Pulse Survey, 86 percent of baby boomers rated family stories as more important than financial wealth.

The generation before the boomers didn’t rate family stories quite so high, but still, 74 percent of them rated stories as more important than financial inheritance.

The Heart of the Family

There’s a reason so many of your clients feel stories are more important than financial inheritance. Stories get to the heart of everything that makes a family a family. Stories help create our identity, our values, our culture and, maybe most importantly, stories are the glue that holds us together across the generations.

As Dr. Judith Kolva, personal historian and CEO and founder of Legacies In Ink points out, “Seventy percent of wealthy families lose their wealth by the second generation, and a stunning ninety percent by the third generation.”

She goes on to say, “It’s important to arrange for passing on the financial wealth, and also the material things such as land, the house, and the jewelry. Still, what really gets to the heart of a family’s ability to preserve its wealth is its ability to preserve its stories.”

Family stories are like little computer programs for our brains. Stories tell us that we’re stewards of a legacy that began before us and that we need to preserve for those who come after us.

Reasons to Record

Stories are the key to preserving and strengthening the family culture, but there are additional reasons to encourage your clients to record their family stories. Dr. Kolva has spent the last 18 years helping families preserve their family stories, and she has many reasons to believe in the importance of it. Stories allow them to:

  • Pass on values, traditions and morals
  • Serve as a moral and spiritual compass
  • Share hard-learned life lessons
  • Create a sense of belonging and loyalty
  • Document family medical histories
  • Prepare the next generations for their responsibilities

A Priority

Based on my own experience, I’d recommend suggesting to all your clients to start recording their family stories as soon as possible. An unfortunate—if not tragic—thing about stories is, if someone doesn’t record them, the priceless wisdom they contain will be lost to future generations.

I remember when Frank Perdue and I first married, he was 68 years old. Many of his teachers and other people who knew him as a child were in their late 80s. I wrote a biography of him as a present for the 70th anniversary of Perdue Farms and interviewed several dozen of them.

Within less than a year, many of my sources for these great stories had passed on. If I hadn’t recorded the stories when I did, they would’ve been lost, along with their priceless, enriching and inspirational insights on the roots of Frank’s success.

How to Transmit

If your clients choose to record their family stories for future generations—and I dearly hope they do—there are two major options for doing this. You can recommend that they record the stories digitally or they can put them together in book form.

Personally, I favor keeping family stories in a book. I love video and audio, and I’ve used both, but I always worry that a generation or two in the future, the technology could change so much that the information would no longer be accessible.

While it’s true that once information is digital, it’s fairly easy to upgrade to new formats, there’s something else to consider. Can your clients be sure that someone in the future will take the time to upgrade the digital information? Will they even know it’s there? I predict that a lot of digital information will be lost a generation or two from now.

A book is different. You don’t have to do anything to a book to keep it current. It’s a format that has a track record of lasting for thousands of years.

Even today, as Kolva adds, “You could put the information in the cloud, but you’ve got to make an effort to look at it. With a book you can pick it up any time, and you don’t need a machine to plug it into.”

Creating a Book

Kolva says that her clients typically spend between a year and 18 months on a family history book. The book itself can be in the form of the family’s history, family business history or the story of the founder. It may take unusual forms, such as telling the family story through recipes or poems or letters.

She also recommends that if your client decides to write a family history book, he includes historical context for the family stories. For example, if he wanted to tell the story of a family member who fought in the Vietnam War, he should put the events in context, using contemporary newspaper articles.

A book that Kolva recently created for one of her clients focuses on letters a Green Beret who served in Vietnam wrote to his wife. As part of the book, she described the Green Berets, their mission, the war in general, what was going on in the United States and how military personnel were treated on the homefront. 

The letters had been stored in a carton where nobody looked at them. Now the letters are a moving and important story and available as a coffee table book with 50 copies available to family members. It’s now part of their identity. They’re a stronger family because of it.

A book can make an extraordinary difference in the life of your client’s family. As Mrs. Lavern Norris Gaynor, heiress to the Texaco fortune, likes to say, “It’s stories not sterling that link generations.”

Since the holidays are coming up, what about a joint gift certificate from family members to the family patriarch or matriarch? The gift certificate could be either for family members undertaking to write the history or for hiring someone to do it.


Mitzi Perdue is a business owner, professional public speaker and author of the book, How to Make Your Family Business Last. Contact her at [email protected] or call her at 410 860-4444.


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