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Why Parents Play Favorites: Explanations for Unequal Bequests

  • Audrey Light
  • Kathleen McGarry

Economists have invested a great deal of effort in trying to understand the motivation for family transfers, yet recent empirical work testing the seemingly appealing models of altruism and exchange has led to decidedly mixed results. A major stumbling block has been the lack of adequate data. We take a fresh look at the issue using responses to an innovative survey question that directly asks mother about the planned division of their estates. We find that both altruism and exchange are frequently offered as explanations of behavior and are of nearly equal importance. Furthermore, the explanations are consistent with observable characteristics of the mother, lending support to the validity of the question. We also find that among step or adopted families, genetic ties play an important role. Because motivating factors appear to differ across families the lack of a consensus among previous researchers about motives ought not to be surprising.

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Article provided by American Economic Association in its journal American Economic Review.

Volume (Year): 94 (2004)
Issue (Month): 5 (December)
Pages: 1669-1681

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Handle: RePEc:aea:aecrev:v:94:y:2004:i:5:p:1669-1681
Note: DOI: 10.1257/0002828043052321
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  1. Barro, Robert J., 1974. "Are Government Bonds Net Wealth?," Scholarly Articles 3451399, Harvard University Department of Economics.
  2. McGarry, K. & Schoeni, R.F., 1995. "Transfer Behavior With the Family: Results from the Asset and Health Dynamics Survey," Papers 95-09, RAND - Labor and Population Program.
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  8. Donald Cox & Oded Stark, 2007. "On the Demand for Grandchildren: Tied Transfers and the Demonstration Effect," Chapters, in: Handbook on the Economics of Happiness, chapter 18 Edward Elgar.
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  19. McGarry, Kathleen, 1999. "Inter vivos transfers and intended bequests," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 73(3), pages 321-351, September.
  20. Kathleen McGarry & Robert F. Schoeni, 1994. "Transfer Behavior: Measurement and the Redistribution of Resources within the Family," NBER Working Papers 4607, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
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  26. Cox, Donald & Rank, Mark R, 1992. "Inter-vivos Transfers and Intergenerational Exchange," The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 74(2), pages 305-14, May.
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  29. Dunn, Thomas A. & Phillips, John W., 1997. "The timing and division of parental transfers to children," Economics Letters, Elsevier, vol. 54(2), pages 135-137, February.
  30. Menchik, Paul L, 1980. "Primogeniture, Equal Sharing, and the U. S. Distribution of Wealth," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, MIT Press, vol. 94(2), pages 299-316, March.
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