The right way to inherit. Preserving family value. 

Three families, three different stories about inheriting. An aristocratic family, the son of an entrepreneur, and two company heirs talk about the challenges of their inheritances and what they are doing to pass their families' value on to the next generation.

Deciding early on who will inherit the family's country estate

Sitting at the antique desk in his office, Sigmund von Wattenwyl is never alone. Hanging on the wall behind him is a gold-framed oil portrait from the distant past: "That's my 13th-great-grandfather," says the 59-year-old. "He's always looking over my shoulder." The ancestor in the painting was the father of Albrecht von Wattenwyl, who built Oberdiessbach Castle. The country estate of the von Wattenwyls, which dates back to the 17th century, is one of the most elegant examples of the late French Renaissance in Switzerland – and it is in superb condition.

That was not at all the case when Sigmund and his wife, Martine, took over the castle 27 years ago. "My two younger siblings were frightened off by the building's poor condition," he recalls. An inheritance contract had already been drawn up long before their father died. "Everything had been arranged, we were all in agreement, no one was left empty-handed."

Inheritances can lead to conflict

While inheriting a magnificent castle is the exception, more assets are being passed on to heirs in Switzerland than ever before. In 2020 alone, they amounted to CHF 95 billion – twice as much as in 2005 and five times the total in 1990. But one thing has not changed: This is a complex subject – and an emotional one. According to the Allensbach Institute in Germany, nearly one in five inheritances causes conflict; a significant number of these cases end up in court. "That's why it's essential to start estate planning early and to include everyone concerned," says Sibylle Brodkorb of Credit Suisse.

This approach has proved successful for the heirs to Oberdiessbach Castle. Sigmund von Wattenwyl is pleased to have reached an amicable agreement with his siblings. Yet the future of the castle is up in the air. The von Wattenwyls have four adult children, but so far only their oldest son, David, has taken on a permanent role in continuing the family's legacy, as a partner in the farming business.

Inheritances in Switzerland have quintupled since 1990

Dramatic increase in inherited assets in Switzerland

Between 1990 and 2020, the value of Swiss inheritances increased from roughly CHF 20 billion to CHF 95 billion – annually.

Source: Brülhart/FORS

Using an inheritance to create a lasting legacy

Switzerland's boom in inheritances can be attributed in large part to the baby boomers. They are wealthier than any previous generation, and now they are passing their assets on to members of the next generation.

One of them is Tobias Rihs – a son of Andy Rihs, who died in 2018. In 1965, Andy Rihs took over his father's company, "AG für Elektroakustik," building it into the global Sonova company. An extroverted entrepreneur, he once observed, "My sons don't need to copy my life." Tobias Rihs didn't copy him. He became an architect, then an entrepreneur in the food service and wellness sectors in Zurich. A few years ago, he and his wife and daughter moved to a farm in Portugal. "I was no longer interested in just more of the same," says the 52-year-old, "I wanted to do something different, something that was really meaningful." That led to his impressive efforts to protect the environment. "I want to take responsibility and use my resources to make a difference," he says.

Tobias Rihs embodies a new generation of millennial heirs. These individuals have recognized that they can use their assets to leave behind a lasting legacy. Tobias Rihs is investing his energy as well as his money in "near-natural and sustainable projects" initiated by startups. In addition, he co-founded the "Clima Now" foundation. Its goal is to mobilize a community of 100,000 large and small donors to fund climate solutions so that we can "bequeath a livable planet to coming generations." It's clear to him that inheritances come with responsibilities. "What good is all our wealth if the world goes to the dogs in ten or 20 years?"

I want to take responsibility and use my resources to make a difference.

Tobias Rihs

Planning ahead for a generational change

Swiss inheritance law has changed very little over the past 100 years. Now, however, it is being updated. The revised law, which will take effect at the beginning of 2023, is better able to meet the needs of modern relationships and living arrangements. "There has been a dramatic increase in blended families, cohabitation, childless couples, married couples of different nationalities, and assets held abroad," says Sibylle Brodkorb. "This makes estate planning more complex and challenging."

In addition, people are living longer – which means that heirs, too, are older when they receive their inheritances. Eighty percent of them are over the age of 50, and 40% are older than 65. This is not the case with the Dreifuss family. Daniel Dreifuss, head of the Zurich-based watch company Maurice de Mauriac, turned over responsibility for the company's operations to his sons, Massimo (28) and Leonard (25), at the beginning of 2020, when he was just 60 years old. Leonard always knew that he would take over the company eventually. His brother, Massimo, is very different – the first thing he wanted to do was to "go far away." He was working in the sales department at Oracle in London when Leonard called and asked him to return to Zurich. The timing was right. "Working at a huge company like Oracle, I had come to realize how much freedom our family-run company offered," says Massimo, "and how much I needed that freedom."

Discussing the emotional topic of an inheritance – dispassionately

But freedom is complicated. Daniel Dreifuss is omnipresent, and his sons need his expertise and contacts. "We don't want to do everything differently," says Massimo. "But at the same time, we can't just 'copy and paste' what our father has done – we're not the same person." Daniel Dreifuss has given each son a 5% share in the company, and has arranged to have them entered in the commercial register as authorized signatories. He plans to transfer another 5% to his daughter, Masha (21), as soon as she has completed her education and wants to support her brothers.

The patriarch and his sons are currently seeing for themselves that inheritances are complicated – and they are even more complicated when issues of succession are involved. The Dreifuss family meets every month with an inheritance expert, who moderates often difficult discussions. "We wouldn't be able to do it on our own," says Daniel Dreifuss. The expert knows how to calm the waters. "He finds the right words and is extremely knowledgeable when it comes to financial and legal issues," says the patriarch, who is thrilled to have this external support. Every obstacle that is overcome, as the process of transferring his estate continues, brings him closer to his next goal: cutting back – and spending as much time as possible in his adopted home of Italy. As an entrepreneur through and through, he knows that part of living "la bella vita" is mastering the art of passing on one's legacy.