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5 Questions to Ask Yourself When Considering a Family Office


By Michael Harris, Director of Family Office

Whether you accumulated wealth over a lifetime of hard work or suddenly came into it via a business exit or inheritance, one of the most common questions within the ultra-high net worth space is what is a family office, and do I need one? A family office is an organization that assumes the day-to-day administration and management of a family’s personal and financial affairs. Though investment oversight is a significant component of their responsibilities, what differentiates them from traditional wealth management firms is all the additional services that they offer.  Having a family office allows the affluent to rely on a team of objective subject matter experts to oversee all the critical aspects of their lives so that they can focus on what really matters to them.

1) What services do we require?

  • Investment Management & Oversight
  • Manager Selection & Due Diligence
  • Alternative Investment Access
  • Aggregated Reporting
  • Bill Payment & Bookkeeping
  • Concierge & Lifestyle Services
  • Tax, Legal & Insurance Coordination
  • Family Governance & Education
  • Strategic Philanthropy Advice
  • Financial & Estate Planning

If you determine that you require more than 3 of the services on this list, chances are that a family office might be right for you. There may be services that you do not currently require but may need down the road.  Many families who are busy enjoying their wealth have not yet begun to think about estate planning, family governance, next-generation education, or strategic philanthropy but will probably need assistance in all these areas at some point during their life.  For this reason, it is important to evaluate a firm’s total platform and service offerings to make sure that they can handle both your existing needs as well as future ones.

2) Should we create our own Single-Family Office (SFO) or join a Multi-Family Office (MFO)?

Once you have decided that you need a family office, the next critical choice is whether you should form your own Single-Family Office (SFO) or join a Multi-Family Office (MFO). For most families, this decision comes down to your net-worth and the level of customization that you require.  Typically, a family with a net worth of $1 billion or more will choose to establish their own SFO, while those with between $25 million and $1 billion prefer to take advantage of the scale and shared cost structure of an MFO. Though it can be tempting to have an organization that exclusively looks after just your family’s needs, keep in mind that the cost of operating your own SFO can be deceiving.  By the time you factor in office space, technology, and several experienced professionals, it can easily be millions of dollars per year to support.  To keep costs down, many matriarchs and patriarchs serve as the head of their SFO.

3) What will it cost us?

A good rule of thumb is that a family should expect to pay about 1% of their assets per year to run their own family office. With a $10 million annual budget, a family worth $1 billion should have no problem setting up and running a high-end operation, where a $100 million family office would barely be able to afford one senior investment professional and office space with a $1 million. This is exactly why most families under $1 billion embrace joining a multi-family office as the cost savings associated with shared infrastructure, technology, and team, enables them to offer a larger team of domain experts at a price below 1% of assets per year.

4) Should we go with a large firm or a smaller boutique?

A popular industry joke is that if you have seen one ultra-high net worth family, you have seen one ultra-high net worth family. From the way each family amassed their wealth to the industry where they were successful to the way they spend money to the charitable causes they support; each family is truly unique and will require different services and support. There is a direct relationship between how custom an offering is and how much it will cost you.  As mentioned before, a single-family office will be 100% dedicated to its sole family but the costs, both monetary and your time, can be very high.  On the other end of the spectrum are family office services provided by large investment and trust banks.  Due to the sheer size and scale of their organization, they can offer these services at a low price, but this assumes that the client fits into their existing model with little customization.  For this reason, many clients choose to partner with a boutique MFO that can offer bespoke services at a competitive price.

5) How should we evaluate a Multi-Family Office (MFO)?  Questions you should ask:

  • Compensation
    – How are you compensated?
    – Are you paid strictly for your advice or do you also get paid to sell products and/or accept soft dollar arrangements?
    – Are you bound by a fiduciary standard or are there conflicts of interest I should know about?
  • Expertise
    – Can you tell me about your team?
    – What are their backgrounds and specific areas of domain expertise?
    – Who will we be working with on a day-to-day basis?
  • Firm History
    – What is the history of your firm?
    – What is your ownership structure?
    – Can we please get a copy of your latest ADV?
    – Have you ever had any issues with the regulators?
  • Clients
    – Can you please tell me what your other clients look like when it comes to net worth?
    – What industry backgrounds do they have?
    – Where are they based from a geographic standpoint?
  • Privacy
    – How do I know that my information will remain private and confidential?
    – Can you walk me through your security protocols from a physical and cyber perspective?

If done correctly, a family office can enable you to truly enjoy the benefits that your wealth brings. In addition to conducting thorough due diligence on several potential firms, make sure you also enjoy working with them as you will be in constant contact with them. From adding new family members via marriage or birth to contemplating a new investment or business opportunity to considering a major purchase or charitable gift, your family office should always be your first call.