Take l’affaire Bettencourt as a warning


Nobody can derive any pleasure from the trial currently taking in place in Paris of 10 men accused of scamming money out of Liliane Bettencourt, the L’Oreal heiress and for a long time the world’s wealthiest woman.

One of the accused – a nurse – tried to kill himself just before the trial began, adding to the general grimness around the case. But families can take lessons from this sorry tale.

Rumours have flown around for years that all sorts of hangers on were exploiting Bettencourt, who is 92 and said to be suffering from dementia. At one point even then-French president Nicolas Sarkozy was dragged into l’affaire Bettencourt after the people running his 2007 election campaign were accused of receiving contributions illegally from her financial advisor. (Sarkozy was cleared of any wrongdoing, but his treasurer is in the dock.)

If anything good can come out of the saga it is that the families of wealthy older people start to watch out more carefully for unscrupulous types wanting to get their hands on the family money.

In most of the western world these days people aged 60 now can expect to live for 20-25 years more. And in America one in three older people who dies has dementia, and a woman in her 60s has a one in six chance of developing the condition. All the statistics show that wealthier people tend to live longer, so the problem is acute for well-off families. It is obvious that older people with money are a target for fraudsters and thieves.

All too often when family business advisers talk about succession they concentrate on the needs and desires of the younger generation. Educating the next gen is important, but it is of course also a lucrative business. If a business school can persuade a family that four, or 10, or 20 members of a generation need special (and expensive) business education they are quids-in.

There is less money to be made from retiring family members, and it is no surprise that the older generation is ignored. The narrative (at least in the west) that youth has all the answers and anyone over 60 is past it creates an environment where it is easy to ignore older family members.

When a family formulates a succession plan they shouldn’t forget to include the older family members, to ensure that there is a role for them – as an ambassador or a mentor, for instance – but also that there is a plan in place to protect them if and when they need it.

No doubt Bettencourt’s family tried to do this. That the matriarch of even a well-meaning, powerful and wealthy family was defrauded shows just how hard it is to do well. This horrible case should be a wake-up call for all families and their advisers. Older family members deserve respect, and sometimes that means protection.