The challenge here is less about the estate plan than the succession. While he was always controversial, what John McCain needed was heirs.
There’s a hole in the Washington landscape that the senior senator from Arizona filled since the Reagan era.
His children may step in to fill it. Daughter Meghan has built a promising career as a pop political commentator and her younger siblings have followed on the military side.
While that may be all it takes to keep the McCain name alive in Washington, promoting his social agenda after his death may be harder.
And that’s really the heart of all true dynastic planning. Every prominent client you have needs to be thinking in these terms.
Start with the estate
At least the money is taken care of. It’s all Cindy’s and it stays Cindy’s.
When McCain ran for president, the opposition research laid bare the number of houses the family owned and how the ownership was structured.
There are a lot of family trusts passing Cindy’s family property down from her parents to the McCain descendants. Together those trusts hold the houses, her family beer business and various assets worth up to $200 million.
McCain’s side of the family legacy is a lot simpler and closer to the ground. Maybe he amassed $15 million on his own or in marital property. By the time it reaches his heirs, it’s a drop in the fiscal bucket compared to what they’ll inherit from Cindy.
The real question is who those heirs are. The four McCain kids are going to be as comfortable as they need or want to be. They’re almost certainly sharing in the income from their grandmother’s trust already, and while Cindy is relatively young, sooner or later they’re in line to inherit her wealth as well.
With that money on the horizon, they can do whatever they want with their lives. Meghan is on TV as a professional “next-generation Republican.” She’s female, she’s educated, telegenic and like her father she isn’t afraid to stake out a “maverick” position now and then.
Can she fill the contrarian role McCain played for so long? As far as I can see, she’s never shown any interest in running for office on her own, even though she did support his presidential campaign.
The succession plan
There’s still going to be a hole in the Senate. Nobody else right now bucks the votes anywhere near as much as McCain did. You might think he was too ornery or not persistent enough, but it was his personal brand.
If nobody follows up on that, all his principled gestures stop. He affected the votes he did and stood up for his constituencies. That was the past.
Unless those principles find someone who can take them forward into the future, they’re a dead hand — as dead as any trust document that tries to dictate the terms by which a new generation lives.
I don’t see any junior senators who picked up on McCain’s lead. Maybe they don’t have the lucky combination of a moral compass and the independent financial resources to follow it without running into conflicts of interest.
That’s probably McCain’s fatal flaw. There’s no cadre of proteges ready to fill his shoes and follow his lead.
The maverick stands alone. If you want to build a dynasty or even a movement, you need to reach out and share your mission, convince the people who will need to step up when you’re gone.
That’s succession planning 101. No matter how visionary or irreplaceable you are, sooner or later you are going to die. When that happens, it’s up to your heirs to decide whether your legacy dies with you.
McCain earned every one of those memorial speeches. But if anyone in Washington is ready to take over where he left off, they haven’t exactly announced themselves.
His old friends in Congress have spent a lot of time twisting. Most of them are in their 70s and 80s as well. They should be looking to their legacy as well.
How do they want history to remember them? And would they rather that history live on or die with them? What are they building for the future?
Know where the money goes. And know where the ideas and ideals go too. That’s a dynasty. If your clients have that, they're in a good place. No regrets.