Is it really about the money?

By DAVID MOON, Moon Capital Management, LLC
May 3, 2009

A recent News Sentinel article detailed the 29-year saga surrounding the potential sale of a valuable 355-acre tract of undeveloped waterfront property in west Knoxville.

Actually the article wasn’t about the property at all. It was about three generations of people. The clue came in the last paragraph, when a court memo filed by three of the four grandsons who inherited the property read, in part, the property is “more than land…it is the foundation of their lives…[their] emotional ties to the farm are significant.”

I have no direct knowledge about this particular situation. But it does remind me that more often than not, when people fight about money, it’s not about the money.

A father and son ran a stock brokerage office in Addison, Texas until last March, when Dad fired Junior. This apparently came as a surprise to the son. He alleges in court documents that they were equal partners and that his father didn’t have the authority to dismiss him. For his part, the son has sued Raymond James, their broker-dealer, for failing to properly oversee his father.

The father has also filed suit in state court, seeking custody of his son’s two children.

This squabble isn’t about money.

A contract cannot easily create a working relationship that does not otherwise exist. Contracts work best when they merely codify and detail an agreement between two willing parties.

Some people create contracts in an attempt to create or prevent certain relationships – often hoping to control people long after their death.

Robert Dryenforth, a patent attorney and former head of the U.S. Patent Office, had a peculiar set of requirements for his then 12-year-old grandson. The younger Dryenforth would inherit his grandfather’s entire estate if he entered Harvard at 18, then spent successive vacations in France, Spain, Italy, Greece, Germany, Denmark and Russia – in the order named.

He would also have to earn a graduate degree from Oxford, attend West Point, then become a lawyer.

That’s pretty detailed, but generally sounds like a good, disciplined education for any young man. But there were a couple of additional stipulations to receive the inheritance.

The grandson must not associate with his grandmother or mother. He was especially warned against the “wiles of women.”

Sometimes it’s about the money, and sometimes it’s not.

A more common example of an attempt at control from the grave is the establishment of some sort of business relationship between family members under the guise of family unity. Maybe it’s an actual family business that a patriarch leaves to three grandchildren. Sometimes it’s a vacation home. Or, as in the case of the Knoxville property, it’s the old family homestead.

While less draconian than trying to break up a family, attempts to force family together are often just as futile. These attempts are rife with potential problems. But money doesn’t cause most relationship problems; it merely reveals them.

David Moon is president of Moon Capital Management, a Knoxville-based investment management firm. This article originally appeared in the News Sentinel (Knoxville, TN).

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