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Bequests as Signals: An Explanation for the Equal Division Puzzle

  • B. Douglas Bernheim
  • Sergei Severinov

In the United States, more than two-thirds of decedents with multichild families divide their estates exactly equally among their children. In contrast, gifts given before death are usually unequal. These findings challenge the validity of existing theories regarding the determination of intergenerational transfers. In this paper, we develop a theory that accounts for this puzzle based on the notion that the division of bequests provides a signal about a parent's altruistic preferences. The theory can also explain the norm of unigeniture, which prevails in other societies.

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Article provided by University of Chicago Press in its journal Journal of Political Economy.

Volume (Year): 111 (2003)
Issue (Month): 4 (August)
Pages: 733-764

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Handle: RePEc:ucp:jpolec:v:111:y:2003:i:4:p:733-764
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  1. Cho, In-Koo & Sobel, Joel, 1990. "Strategic stability and uniqueness in signaling games," Journal of Economic Theory, Elsevier, vol. 50(2), pages 381-413, April.
  2. B. Douglas Bernheim, 1992. "How Strong are Bequest Motives? Evidence Based on Estimates of the Demand for Life Insurance and Annuities," NBER Working Papers 2942, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
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  9. Lundholm, Michael & Ohlsson, Henry, 1999. "Post Mortem Reputation, Compensatory Gifts and Equal Bequests," Working Paper Series 1999:3, Uppsala University, Department of Economics.
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  13. Wilhelm, Mark O, 1996. "Bequest Behavior and the Effect of Heirs' Earnings: Testing the Altruistic Model of Bequests," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 86(4), pages 874-92, September.
  14. Bernheim, B Douglas & Shleifer, Andrei & Summers, Lawrence H, 1986. "The Strategic Bequest Motive," Journal of Labor Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 4(3), pages S151-82, July.
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  19. Guinnane, Timothy W., 1992. "Intergenerational transfers, emigration, and the rural Irish household system," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 29(4), pages 456-476, October.
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