Is It Wrong To Want Your Kids To Be Trust Fund Babies?

July 24, 2014  |  


Philip Seymour Hoffman, who starred in a number of great films including Doubt, Charlie Wilson’s War and Mary & Max (he voiced the character Max), passed away back in February from a heroin overdose at the age of 46. His attorney showed up in a Manhattan court earlier this week to testify that Hoffman did not want to leave his kids a single dime of his $35 million estate.

As reported by Salon:

In court documents revealed Monday, the actor strongly stipulated that he “did not want his children to be considered ‘trust fund’ kids.” In the Manhattan Surrogate’s Court filing, court appointed attorney James Cahill Jr. says Hoffman’s accountant, David Friedman, “recalled conversations with [Hoffman] in the year before his demise where the topic of a trust was raised for the kids and summarily rejected by him.” Instead, Hoffman declared that he wanted his money to go his partner and the mother of his children, Marianne O’Donnell, with Hoffman expressing faith she would “take care of the children.” Though the will itself was drawn up before the births of their younger children, Cahill says that “because there is nothing suspicious about the actor’s will, it should be approved by the court.”

Hoffman’s hope that his children wouldn’t grow into dependent adults has echoes in the stance of Sting, who last month revealed that he’s told his children, “There won’t be much money left because we are spending it! I certainly don’t want to leave them trust funds that are albatrosses round their necks. They have to work. All my kids know that and they rarely ask me for anything, which I really respect and appreciate.” Of course, the difference is that Sting’s children are all legally adults now, while Hoffman’s are still young. But Nigella Lawson, whose two children are teenagers, has likewise declared, “I am determined that my children should have no financial security. It ruins people not having to earn money.”

That’s an interesting concept, the idea that folks (even the ones from a wealthy family) have to earn their money and not feel entitled to it. But he did leave the money to the kids’ mother, which by default will be theirs eventually. If anything, withholding such wealth sounds like one of those fake-me-out lessons your parents would try to give you, like calling your bluff on running away or acting like you can’t go to the movies with the family because you didn’t clean your room properly, knowing full and damn well that they are not going to let you stay home alone.

Nevertheless, I’m always intrigued by stories of people who are well-off but opt not to leave their children anything in their wills. The stories grab my attention mainly because the decision to do this denotes such a disdain for the privilege (often seen by those in their class) that they are willing to risk their family’s futures in order to not become the elite. This particularly occurs with wealthy White people. I recall seeing Nicole Buffet, the adopted granddaughter of Warren Buffet, one of the wealthiest men in the entire world, talk on Oprah about having to live on welfare as her grandfather refused to trust her money beyond her college graduation (and even then he was only paying for tuition and books). Buffet told Oprah that she was a struggling artist who also worked as some sort of domestic worker for another wealthy family. But despite not having his money as a cushion, she said that she actually seemed rather content and spiritually fulfilled with her life’s path.

I’m sure she is, considering the fact that this follow-up article in Jezebel says that Buffet makes around $40,000 annually off of the sale of her paintings alone just for being the “struggling” granddaughter of one of the richest men in the world. And that’s the real rub: How hard is it to find opportunities when you are Warren Buffett’s granddaughter? Even without his money and a quarter of his skill and smarts, somebody would always want to hire her or give her free stuff. Meanwhile, there are some real struggling artists without a big name or a solid bank account, who can expect to make that much in their professional lifetime. So much for merit.

With that said, how much of the bootstrapping culture is for white people?

Yeah, I know: Must everything be a black/white issue? In America, the answer is yes. Plus, there is a more subtle conversation about wealth building and historically how it has been created that we can’t gloss over. I will not attempt to explain all the economics of it, but The Economist has a great article explaining how wealth was built in this country and how much inheritance played a part.

And this is of particular concern considering our white counterparts have six times the amount of wealth of Black folks. And as pointed out in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Atlantic piece, “A Case for Reparations,” there were a number of avenues used and sanctioned by the U.S. government to deny Black folks in particular the access to inheritable wealth, including redlining policies. Therefore, it would seem that the idea of merit and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps can only work if you actually have boots to begin with.

With that said, Black people should not be in the business of duplicating systems and structures just to be aligned with what are often dysfunctional and oppressive cultural values – that kind of thinking is how we ended up doing stuff like honorary degrees and legacies in our own cultural institutions and among ourselves. But in the larger context of the dominant culture, what is wrong with a little financial affirmative action, particularly for the next generation, to help level the playing field? Or like Philip Seymour Hoffman, should wealthy Black folks too be weary of the trust fund baby?


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