‘Succession’: 4 Lessons from the Series
Key Insights into Logan Roy’s Strategy
As a trusts and estates attorney who assists families in navigating business succession issues, I have been both horrified and captivated by the unfolding of Waystar Royco’s leadership succession following Logan Roy’s sudden death on HBO’s Succession.
Although the fictional Roy family is unique, the estate planning and business succession challenges they face are not. This article will examine how Logan’s actions fueled destructive competition among the Roy siblings and offer valuable lessons for business owners aiming to achieve a smoother transition and foster family harmony.
Lesson 1: Establish a Clear, Legally Enforceable Succession Plan
While the specifics of Logan’s estate plan remain undisclosed, Episode 4 reveals that he kept a piece of paper in his safe outlining his wishes for the future of Waystar, specifically naming Kendall Roy as his successor. However, this undated paper lacks signatures or witnesses. Some pencil marks appear to have been added later, indicating that Logan may have underscored or crossed out Ken’s name as a potential successor.
Several issues arise with this piece of paper. First, it lacks legal binding as a valid will in New York. To be valid, a will in New York requires the testator, Logan in this case, to sign at the end before two attesting witnesses who would then provide their names and addresses. Furthermore, if Logan did have a valid will, any writing outside the will itself (such as this piece of paper) would not hold legal weight.
Second, the writing fails to provide clear instructions to a fiduciary. Did Logan underscore Kendall’s name to signify him as the potential successor, or did he change his mind and cross it out? Why did he pencil in Greg’s name in the margins with a question mark? Even if Frank, as the executor of Logan’s estate, wishes to honor Logan’s intentions, deciphering them from the piece of paper would prove challenging.
Third, Logan chose to keep this document hidden in his safe amid various deal documents instead of providing a copy to a trusted fiduciary who could ensure its discovery or keeping it accessible in another location. Documents concealed in a safe or similarly inaccessible places often remain undiscovered when needed most. The confusing nature of Logan’s intentions and the dubious implications of the piece of paper only deepen the resentment and suspicion among the Roy siblings following their father’s passing.
When preparing for a seamless succession, it is crucial to keep your formal, legally enforceable estate planning and corporate documents up to date. Relying on private conversations with family members or scraps of paper stashed away in a safe only introduces uncertainty and breeds resentment.
Lesson 2: Treat Your Children Equitably
For families with closely held businesses, determining who should assume leadership after the senior generation departs poses a significant challenge. Children may possess varying skills, capabilities or degrees of involvement in the business. Parents often believe that one child exhibits superior leadership qualities, while traditional values may favor the eldest child or the sons as the torchbearers of the family legacy.
In my experience, resentment intensifies and disputes escalate into litigation when differential treatment of children is based on chronology or gender rather than merit. Daughter Shiv’s eventual decision to support an outsider and her estranged husband after Kendall’s outburst at the board meeting (“But I’m the oldest son!”) did not surprise me. I have witnessed the “anyone but my brother” scenario play out countless times over the years.
Even beyond business succession concerns, parents may be inclined to distribute unequal amounts to their children. Often, parents wish to provide more assistance to a child in greater need while leaving less for a self-sufficient child. Unfortunately, whenever parents treat their children differently in their estate plan, it has the potential to create divisions among them, as they tend to equate inheritance with love.
If possible, even if the inheritance is not equal, it should be equitable. For instance, a parent can distribute the economic value of the family business equally among their children while granting voting control to the child who will lead the business. If the parent leaves the family business to the child actively involved in its operations, they can allocate the family home or insurance money to their other children.
Lesson 3: Discuss Succession Issues Openly During Your Lifetime
It is understandable that parents may wish to avoid difficult conversations with their children. For parents with multiple children working in a family business, explaining why one child is best suited to take over can be particularly uncomfortable. However, Succession reminds us that a parent’s failure to express their intentions — or, worse, providing conflicting messages and pitting their children against each other — can have catastrophic consequences for both the business and the children themselves.
Openness with your children generally yields the best outcomes in non-business contexts as well. If parents explain to their daughter that they plan to allocate a larger share of their estate to her vulnerable brother out of concern for his well-being, there is a greater likelihood that she will harbor less anger toward both her parents and her brother when she receives a smaller share.
If parents choose to treat their children unequally, it is essential to discuss the concerns motivating these decisions openly with the children. Addressing underlying issues while the senior generation is still alive is preferable to leaving the next generation to wonder why their siblings were favored, potentially leading them into a “coronation demolition derby.”
Lesson 4: Selling the Company May Be the Best Move
At times, your children may not express an interest in joining the family business or may not possess the necessary qualities to run the company you have built. In such cases, it may be in the best interest of both the children and the company to sell to a third party and distribute the proceeds among family members. As treacherous as Logan’s actions were in the Season 3 finale of the show when he negotiated to sell the company without his children’s knowledge, the sale of Waystar to GoJo was arguably in everyone’s best interest.
Caryn Young is a trust and estates partner at the global law firm Withers,