Despite all the books, publicity and warnings from experts, most family business owners still don't have a clear, written succession strategy.

In fact, 25 percent of first-generation family business owners who have a written will do not have a succession plan, according to a national survey released by the Family Firm Institute in Boston.

Although 81 percent of those polled said they want their business to stay in the family, 20 percent aren't sure the next generation is committed to keeping the business under family ownership.

Experts advise family business owners not to let emotional ties influence their succession plans, but that's very tough.

"It's harder for people to make good business decisions when there's family involved the family issues seem to thicken the plot," said Andrew Sherman, a Washington, D.C., attorney who advises families in business together.

The family drama intensifies when a son or daughter agrees to work for the business under duress. These reluctant children often feel pressured by a parent who is obsessed with keeping the business in the family.

Passing your business down to a child is just one of many options to consider.

"You don't have to turn over management decisions to your children, even if you feel it's right to give them the company's stock," said Sherman. "You could sell the business, transform the business, do a joint venture, or sell it to an employee or outsider."

No matter what course you take, Sherman emphasizes the need to put it in writing sooner rather than later. He also suggests being very honest with a child who may want to take over the business when you don't think he or she has the ability or personality to run it.

"Of course, you are going to offend somebody," said Sherman. "But if your life's work is going to be run into the ground, who benefits from that?"

Despite the odds against it, many family firms actually make a smooth transition from one generation to the next. Wineries, for instance, are traditionally family-run and remain in the same family for generations. (The Gallos and the Mondavis come to mind when one thinks of famous family-owned California wineries).

Alfred Scheid, owner of the 6,000-acre Scheid Vineyards, devised a successful formula for passing his business to the next generation.

"In our office, the fact you are family is thrown out the window," said Scheid. "When the kids came into the business, we had to make some strict rules. We don't discuss family issues at work, but very frequently, we ask, 'Are you free for lunch today?'"

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