When Affluent Families Dig Up Their Past

Another is to create a portrait of how the family truly was, with its triumphs and imperfections on full display. Janice DiPietro, chief executive and founder of Exceptional Leaders International, said complete histories could create a shared family language.

In one family Ms. DiPietro worked with, the founder had given sons and daughters unequal shares of the business, which led to a discussion on how to equalize the distribution going forward.

Either way, Frazer Rice, the author of “Wealth, Actually” and a consultant on wealth management and governance, said a family should not rush to act on what it had learned from its history.

“Caution should be used before pulling out the big guns,” he said. “Centering an advice project around the family history shouldn’t be done until a general sense of the impact is known.”

Mr. Arnold said that when his family history was unveiled, filling an oversize boardroom table with about 200 documents, he felt self-conscious.

“It was a little uncomfortable in the beginning, because I was hearing it for the first time and my kids were there,” he said, comparing it to doing due diligence on a company. Noting he came from humble roots, he added, “I thought it was a little bit uncomfortable because I don’t have those generational perfect portraits in my family.”

But as about 20 relatives, including his mother, in-laws and children, ranging in age from 12 to 20, walked around the table, he started to feel better. Mr. Arnold, who had lived with his wife on Peachtree Battle Road in Atlanta, was interested to learn that a relative had fought in the Battle of Peachtree Creek in the Civil War.

“It’s about self-awareness,” he said. “To piece it together and to tell a story — it made you proud of how you’ve gotten here.”