A Novel Approach

Cam Thornton seeks out the stories that reveal who clients are and what they value.

Never heard of heritage planning? You will, if advisor Cam Thornton has his way.

“Most people are concerned throughout their life with money,” says Thornton, 58, founder of Cameron Thornton Associates, an independent advisory firm in Burbank, Calif. “How much do they have now, how much will they have in retirement and how much will be left to their heirs? But what’s equally important is a person’s story. What is it that has made you who you are? That’s the missing link in most planning today.”

With their new novel What Matters, Thornton and co-author Rod Zeeb hope to shine a light on heritage planning, which helps prepare heirs to receive their financial and emotional inheritance.  As Thornton, a certified financial planner, puts it, “Your legacy is defined by what you value, not by the valuables you have amassed.” Without intentionally preserving the former, he adds, the latter may well be lost.

In the novel, the dying 82-year-old Martin Forrestal takes up a pad of paper and in large letters writes: What Matters? During a long night of reflection, he identifies the values that matter most to him — like love, forgiveness, leadership, determination, compassion, faith, sacrifice, philanthropy and family unity. Many of the stories in the book were inspired by real-life clients counseled by both Thornton and Zeeb, a former estate planning attorney who heads The Heritage Institute in Lake Oswego, Ore.

“What I would hope readers would take away is, first and foremost, to slow down and savor their own treasure chest of memories, to recall and share their own stories. Sharing your passions reveals what has made you who you are,” says Thornton. “Most families don’t know the whole story, the ups and downs that are a part of life. It’s really critical that you share your feelings so that others can share an appreciation for the road already traveled.”

See also: Estate Planning: Focus on the Legacy, Not the Tax Bill

Thornton was drawn to heritage planning 16 years ago when, after a client died, the family imploded. “I had done everything correctly from my end,” he says. “The estate planning attorney had done everything correctly from his end. The focus was always on the money — and it didn’t matter in the end. When I began to think about the values of family, of stories, it just clicked for me.”  Soon after, Thornton created a process called The Family Financial Philosophy System, intended to bridge the gap between passing on what one owns and passing on what one is.

A few years ago, Thornton joined forces with The Heritage Institute, which advocates the like-minded Heritage Process. Today, through consulting firm Navigator Legacy Partners, Thornton works exclusively with heritage planning clients. One of his drivers: the sorry statistics involving successful wealth transfer. According to Thornton, 60% of families waste away their wealth by the end of the second generation. By the end of the third generation, 90% of families have little or nothing left of it.

Thornton’s work starts with a heritage family statement, a document that serves ideally as a foundation for all other planning. Through guided discovery, he asks open-ended questions to help the client recall past experiences. Through the client’s stories, values emerge: Serve others. Give it all you’ve got. Keep strong family ties. Lead a purpose-filled life.

The conversations, six or so hours over two to three meetings, are recorded and a transcript made. The process itself is one of collaboration and involves the client’s other advisors. “The most important thing is the clients stating, in their own words, what they’d like to happen. It’s something you can use as a blueprint for investments or philanthropy. Advisors, just as importantly as heirs, want to understand exactly what a family wants,” says Thornton. “This does that.”

Thornton also advocates a “heritage day,” where parents and their adult children participate in a “pre-inheritance exercise” that includes advice on how to hire professional advisors, invest money and establish legal entities. “It’s truly a mentoring process where the older generation has the opportunity to begin to mentor not as parent to child, but as adult to adult,” he adds. “It increases the level of safety and trust and provides a springboard to talking about things they’ve never talked about.”

The Heritage Institute, founded in 2003, has certified over 100 advisors in the heritage planning process — among them, financial advisors, estate planning attorneys, non-profit executives and family coaches. Zeeb calls Thornton an “ambassador” for the program with an acute empathy for family values. “He was doing all these great things advising on the money side, but it wasn’t enough,” says Zeeb. “Cam connects with family, and his work has had a positive impact on many, many families.”

Thornton, meanwhile, hopes that What Matters will introduce a far greater number of families to heritage planning.

“I want people to use the book as an example. Martin knows he is terminally ill, but life is unfinished, and there are things bothering him. List, like Martin, the values you’ve learned over a lifetime. If you do no more than sit down with a notepad and start to focus on life lessons learned, that’s a good start. Our biggest hope is to reach as many families as we can. Do what Martin did. Tell your story.”

For more on estate planning, see:

Boomers Aren't Interested in Leaving Money to Heirs

Estate Planning: Focus on the Legacy, Not the Tax Bill

What to Do Now to Minimize Wealth Transfer Tax

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