Is it time to retire the label multi-family office? any attempt to survey the landscape of wealth management businesses catering to rich families seems to devolve quickly into arguments about definitions of who does what, for whom and in what way.

It is almost half a century since family offices such as the new york-based bessemer trust began opening their doors to money beyond their founding dynasty to share their expertise in managing multi-generational wealth and to share the costs of doing so. they have been joined by a burgeoning array of firms building more or less the same suite of services for wealthy families.

Investment advisers are coming up with tax and estate planning services. accountants and law firms that families have used to oversee their financial affairs also see an opportunity to crowd on to the field, by building related services white glove concierge services, say, or management of private jets and yachts.

Meanwhile, traditional private banks have gone far beyond just trying to maximise portfolio returns and have built impressive philanthropic and impact investing offerings. and everyone is pitching softer services, such as family education advice. hardly a day goes by without a new webinar on how to engage the millennial generation more deeply in a familys financial affairs.

Sceptical families may think that some of the newer challengers are claiming more expertise than they have, which may be fair in some cases. but potential clients of an old-school multi-family office will also want to look beyond its history. you dont have to have that kind of [long-established] heritage to be the real mccoy, says tom livergood, founder of family wealth alliance, a research firm. you just have to know what you are doing.

The main differentiator of the older multi-family offices namely that they are independent of any particular brokers investment products is moot in the modern era. all the serious wealth management platforms have an open architecture and more investment advisers are eschewing commission-based fee models geared to product sales in favour of fees based on assets under management. there has also been consolidation among multi-family offices originally based on a few dynasties fortunes, further eroding differences between them and newer advisory firms.

The industry, meanwhile, is in a ferocious war for talent, which means not all offices are expertly staffed. families must ask whether their multi-family office is keeping up with the increasingly complex and expensive technology required to manage multi-generational wealth.

Then there is the question of access to the best investment opportunities many families will want to include direct investments in private companies. a study this year by fintrx, a family office data firm, found that 83 per cent of single-family offices had made or were looking to make direct investments. that was true for just 30 per cent of multi-family offices globally.

How might you design a multi-family office today? an interesting example is the formation of the adi dassler international family office (adifo) by heirs of the founder of sportswear company adidas, who died in 1978. their new multi-family office, based in miami, is owned jointly by the three sons of inge dassler (adis eldest daughter) and brad bradham, chief executive of an earlier dassler family office, along with apollon wealth management, a registered investment adviser that itself is part-owned by merchant investment management, a financing firm.

The relationship with apollon brings financial planning tools, technology and client support services. the familys presence offers reassurance to other dynasties that adifos services will be well tailored to their needs. horst bente, adi dasslers grandson, talks up the unique investment opportunities the firm can offer adifo is linked to iead, an incubator founded by the family for sports industry start-ups that has nurtured 30 companies around the world. few multi-family offices can tap into such networks.

The good news is that this is an era of dynamism and competition. no two families will have the same priorities in the services they need, just as families investment goals can differ wildly. they may or may not decide a multi-family office is right for them. but they should all bear one thing in mind: the label is not what matters.

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