The sudden wealth conundrum

Whether the new riches derive from an inheritance, the sale of a business, or a lottery win, the heady initial excitement does not last. It is frequently followed by complex emotional and financial challenges which must be addressed for the wellbeing of the individual and their families.

Sudden wealth is a phenomenon that is becoming much more prevalent. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), almost £100 billion was passed on in the form of inheritances in 2020 alone, with the top fifth of beneficiaries inheriting an average of £390,000.1

Over the next 30 years, some £5.5 trillion will be passed down to next generations of families in the UK in a mass inheritance event that has been dubbed the greatest transfer of wealth in UK history.2 Sudden wealth is on the rise.

 

Understanding Sudden Wealth Syndrome

There are many real-life examples of big money winners discovering that their unexpected new wealth puts them under psychological stress, alienates them from former friends, and often ends in bankruptcy.

Sadly, this all-too-common experience is so widespread that psychologists recognise it as a condition: Sudden Wealth Syndrome (SWS).

It may seem counter-intuitive to feel concern for the suddenly wealthy, but SWS is a real condition, first identified by psychologists in the 1990s, which has been likened to the effects of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).

Sudden wealth can produce a constellation of harmful side-effects including personality change, relationship problems, and reckless or excessive spending.

These pressures manifest in many ways: lottery winners squander their fortunes while business owners dither over investing the proceeds from exiting their business, causing their wealth to dwindle. People who achieve sudden wealth are frequently afflicted by anxiety and a sense of dread that they will lose their money.

Guilt is a powerful and debilitating emotion that is often linked to sudden wealth. Questions such as ‘why me?’ will arise and the recipients may feel ashamed or undeserving.

Such negative feelings stop people from enjoying their wealth and the financial security it can provide. It can even lead to self-sabotage as they start to resent their wealth as a burden and seek to get rid of it. 

Facing the emotional challenges

Knowing the tell-tale signs of Sudden Wealth Syndrome is essential for treating them effectively. The main symptoms are:

Personality changes

Life-changing sudden wealth can often lead to personality-changing effects, or even a full-blown identity crisis, caused by trying to second guess societal expectations. The suddenly wealthy may feel an expectation to live up to a new and unfamiliar lifestyle that is not really them, all the while worried about how others will perceive them.

Relationship strain

Estrangement from friends and family is not uncommon as individuals grapple with their newfound wealth. Sudden wealth can lead to jealousy and resentment as the newly wealthy feel obliged to share their good fortune with friends, family, colleagues, or good causes. They may start to doubt the authenticity of their relationships and become suspicious, mistrustful, and isolated as a result. 

Financial recklessness

Reactions to a sudden windfall depend on personality type. Some individuals will make rash spending decisions – from huge gifts to friends or big-ticket purchases of cars or properties. Such spontaneity can feel exhilarating, but it is also damaging, emotionally and financially.

Others will feel so paralysed by anxiety from their new wealth, often from feeling unworthy of the riches they received, that they become incapable of making any decisions at all. The paradox here is that a sudden infusion of wealth can damage an individual’s financial wellbeing, leaving them worse off than before. 

Loss of control

Business owners who sell their enterprises often struggle with the aftermath. Many confess to feeling something akin to an existential crisis as they lose their sense of self and sense of purpose. It’s hard to come to a sudden halt after years of being highly focused and working 80-hour weeks.

A successful exit is a joyful achievement for entrepreneurs, but also a form of bereavement. Many feel unprepared for extensive leisure time and for managing their wealth rather than people. Often that void is filled by impulsive financial decisions. With 40% of UK business owners, whose companies turn over more than £5 million, planning to exit within a year, this issue affects many people.3

Financial health with sudden wealth

As with many psychological conditions, SWS can be managed effectively by seeking expert support and advice with both the emotional and financial aspects of sudden wealth. This will lead to better mental, and financial health. If you find yourself coming into sudden wealth, there are steps you can take:

Pause

Immediately after receiving a large sum of money, it’s important not to make any rushed decisions. Give yourself time to process the news and adjust to your new circumstances. 

Financial planning

As you adapt to your newfound wealth it is a good idea to engage the services of wealth management professionals. Financial planners can give you invaluable guidance and help you chart a prudent course to preserve and grow your money.

Financial recklessness

An investment adviser will help you decide what degree of investment risk you are comfortable with and tailor a strategy to meet your financial goals and safeguard your newfound wealth.

Tax planning

Suddenly coming into a large sum of money also puts you in the sights of the taxman. An experienced financial planner can help you minimise your tax bill and keep more of your wealth through tax-efficient investment strategies and estate planning. 

Inheritance planning

Affluent parents may worry about the impact that a substantial inheritance could have on their children or grandchildren. Putting in place trust funds, and other wealth transfer controls, can offer peace of mind. 

Holistic approach

Addressing the emotional and psychological aspects of your sudden wealth is just as important as looking after the financial side. 

Counsellors can help you to understand and handle the overwhelming barrage of emotions that can arise from sudden wealth such as stress, anxiety, depression, and guilt. They will work with you to help you develop a healthy relationship with your money, enabling you to see your wealth as a positive thing and a force for good.

How we can help

Getting the right advice and support can make all the difference between enjoying your new wealth and suffering from it. Our expert financial planners can help you devise a proper plan that ensures that you are in control of your money, rather than letting it control you. That way you’ll have confidence that you are safeguarding your wealth for today and for future generations.

Please get in touch if you'd like to speak to one of our team today.

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1 A New Age of Inheritance, January 2023. https://demos.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2023/01/inheritance-done-2.pdf

2 Intergenerational Wealth Transfers, Kings Court Trust, https://www.kctrust.co.uk/wealthtransfer

3  How to mitigate tax when selling your business, Investors Chronicle. https://www.investorschronicle.co.uk/ideas/2023/06/27/how-to-mitigate-tax-when-selling-your-business/  

 
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