Introduction to basic family charters

There are some frequent questions that are raised by researchers when looking into a specific matter. Some of them seem to have obvious answers when, more frequently than not, this is not the case.

1.   What is a Family?

A Family is a group of individuals having in common a blood bond, or a kin relationship, derived from marriage or adoption. All civilizations across the globe have allocated a special place to family clusters or units. However, and for a number of reasons, not the least being the rather permissive mode of living in the West, children, after having attained the maturity age, leave their parental home and become, in a certain way, and to a certain extent, independent. They participate in family gatherings every now and then, celebrate religious and other holidays together, just about what, and in some cases the bare minimum, that is required to keep their relationship with their parents and siblings. Exceptions may be found in business dynasties, but the reason is mainly attributable to the need to preserve family wealth, by promoting closeness among its members, more than to the sense belonging to the Family per se. However, the meaning of a Family, in the Middle East for instance, has an extra moral dimension. The largest a Family is, the strongest it is believed to be. This strength is consolidated by the fact that the children of the Family do not normally leave their parental home other than when they get wed; and once they do that, they keep returning home and inter-acting with the Family members on a very regular basis.

A Family is thus a social unit, consisting of parents and the children they raise. This is an obvious definition. However, in the business world we have seen extended families comprising of not only blood members. While in-laws admitted in the Family are not typically considered as Family members in the strict sense of the word, we have come across families where sons and daughters-in-law, or daughters and sons-in-law, have either been involved in the Family business or been given the opportunity of benefitting from such business, to an extent that justifies making them part of the business Family. Some other Families have expressly excluded non-blood Family members from the Family business and affairs.

2.   What is a Family Charter?

Most Family businesses are governed by unwritten understandings, rules or tacit agreements governing their day-to-day running, their targets for the future, and how they anticipate the next generations will become involved.  However, just like any unwritten arrangements, these are likely to generate disputes and conflicts over ambiguous and unclear matters.

A Family Charter is a written statement of intent, or arrangement entered into by the Family members in relation, most of the time, to a Family business, other assets or Family matters in general. A Family Charter is also defined as the Family’s constitution, or protocol, handling the ownership, operation and disposal of the Family business and other assets. It is also a statement of agreed values, aims and relationships regarding the assets commonly owned by the Family members.

3.   Who needs a Family Charter?

Families with no substantial wealth, let alone unwealthy families, do not really need to go through any lengthy procedures to ensure that the value of the assets they leave behind is preserved, protected and maximized as the years go by. However, the patriarchs of wealthy and high net worth Families do have a legitimate concern regarding the future of their business which they will have spent decades building, not only for them but also for their descendants.

Family Charters are mostly needed in families who have a substantial operating business. Not only members of the Family, who are directly involved in a Family business, need a Family Charter, but also, and maybe more importantly, those who are not involved. The latters feel more comfortable knowing that the Family wealth is being managed, with transparency, under proper governance and according to solid structures and principles.

4.   Is the Family Charter Enforceable?

(a)     A Family Charter is unlikely to be a legally binding document. You may view it as more of a mission statement for a Family, or for a Family business with which Family Charters are frequently associated.  It may include, in addition to more easily assessable tangible provisions, a statement of values and ethical guidelines that are insufficiently precise to be enforced or, if violated, are not subject to any accountability. Having said that, and although a Family Charter is not, on the face of it, a perfectly legally binding document, it contains several provisions which reflect the consensus view of the Family stakeholders on specific matters. It should be viewed and assessed in the context of the overall framework of governance for the business, supporting the business plan drawn-up for the Family.

(b)    One way to ensure the enforceability of a Family Charter,and to convert what are moral obligations into legal duties, is to make the Charter as close as possible to a binding contract. If every Family member contributes to the Family Charter by attending the meetings held to discuss it, voicing their ideas and concerns, negotiating with other Family members, and agreeing with them on its terms. If all such members sign off on it, the Family Charterbecomes a contract, and will thus be enforceable as such.  If rallying all Family members around a legally binding Charter is impossible, for whatever reason, then the most important provisions of the Charter may be embodied in one or more separate deeds, to be signed by all or some of the Family members. The notarization, or other types of authentication of the signatures, reinforces the enforceability of such deeds. Needless to add that only those of the Family members who will have signed the deed shall be bound by it.