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What is the Definition of Family?

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It is now increasingly difficult to decide what constitutes a family. Good family communication and regular family meetings are two of the strongest predictors for a successful family business. How do we decide who's to be involved in a family meeting process and who can't be?

That used to be an easier question to answer. Family members have expanded to include an array of individuals who could have hardly been predicted (or at least openly acknowledged) a few decades ago. Recently, we consulted with a CEO patriarch who openly talked about and accepted his daughter's lesbian relationship. As an established couple, his daughter---the company's chief financial officer---and her significant other had been living together for ten years and both were always present and comfortable at all family gatherings.

Our client had scheduled an important family meeting a month away to discuss a critical issue in the family---a succession plan---and had called us in to help make sure that things ran smoothly. As we went over the list of attendees, we expressed concern when we realized that his daughter's partner hadn' t been invited. My God, I didn't even think about it! he replied, embarrassed.

We realized that on one level, despite his good grace and benevolent intentions, he still hadn't really accepted his daughter's partner as a real family member. Fortunately, he realized his omission in time to avert a potential disaster.

Although underway for decades, fundamental changes in American families still challenge our long-held values and half conscious assumptions. It used to be that all we had to worry about were in-laws. Some people are still surprised to learn that the traditional nuclear family is actually a statistical minority. Between 1970 and 2000, married families with children dropped from 40 percent of American households to 24 percent. Unmarried couples account for 4.5 percent of all households, an increase of almost 75 percent in the past decade. At some point in their lives, over one-third of American children can expect to live in a single-parent household. These facts suggest that any modern American family business is likely to include live-in partners (of the same or opposite sex), divorced or separated spouses, stepparents, adopted children or stepchildren.

We can decry, worry about or embrace these changes. But, at the very least, family businesses have to acknowledge that these changes exist so that family members can make clear conscious decisions and anticipate their consequences. For example, what's to be done with divorced spouses? After the divorce is settled, something often easier said than done, will the ex-spouse's extent of participation hinge upon the amicability or bitterness of the divorce? What if the original family member is the one who caused the divorce by doing something horrible? What's to be done for the children? Will decisions about the children be based upon their ages or their feelings and actions during the divorce? Are there any conflicts between what other family members feel is right and what the embittered family member wants to do?

Although there are not hard and fast rules for making these difficult decisions, a wide array of options exist. During emotionally wrenching times, it usually best to think of options as existing along a continuum. A vast middle ground lies between doing nothing and doing everything possible for a family member who is legally moving away from the center, and it is the area between the poles where the wisest solutions usually lie. When our hearts yank us toward extremes, it's best to invite our heads into the negotiations. For example, a family may decide to exclude ex-spouses from ownership in the business but still include them as employees.

Blended families can also present dilemmas. If a family member marries someone with children and legally adopts those children, are the children to be included in the family with the same rights and privileges as other family members? Some families decide this on the basis of the children's ages at the time of marriage. But occasionally, notions of fairness and inclusion may conflict with some family members inherent belief that blood is thicker than legal status.

In such situations, once again, remembering to bring the families heads as well as hearts to the negotiating table will help find compromises. Some values clarification may also help. Values are infinitely more rigid when they're unconscious; often, after people are allowed to clearly express their own values, they are willing to modify them. The trick in helping family members discover and express their values is to make certain that they take responsibility for every statement they make. Saying, I have trouble accepting that children who don't share our genes and family history should have the same rights as my own children, puts the issue squarely and honestly upon the table. Saying, Why should your new husband bring his kids into our family and expect us to take care of them? puts the onus on the new husband and is certain to intensify the kind of defensiveness that can erupt into a battle.

Finally, are long-term, live-in partners part of the family? If so, for how long must they live together before they're accepted? Here, again, so many variables exist that the answer can only come from the family's willingness to discuss the issue without insult or recrimination. A good starting point may be to discuss what each person really means by family. Some family members may purposely tailor their definitions to include or exclude the person whose presence has triggered the discussion. To avoid that, everyone should write down his or her definition. Then someone collects the papers and redistributes them so that each person ends up with a definition that someone else wrote. One by one each person reads aloud the definition in his or her hand and a discussion follows. This exercise will not necessarily lead to a consensus definition of family, although that would be the ideal, but it will generate an honest, vigorous discussion that enables each person, as well as the family unit, to come closer to deciding what constitutes a family. Doing this exercise orients the family toward working together. It saves them from fighting to hold on to values that actually stand in the way of what is usually the ultimate value and goal that everyone genuinely wants: family unity.

A parent's fantasy is that the family that they have always envisioned will work together and stay together. It doesn't always work out that way. But if parents can approach the new realities with understanding, if they are willing to accept a challenge and to work at the challenge, then the most important parts of their dream---a supportive family and a successful family business---can still come true. Bernard Kliska and Nancy Waichler are associates with The Family Business Consulting Group, Inc.

 

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