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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. B. Douglas Bernheim & Kyle Bagwell, 1986. "Is Everything Neutral?," NBER Working Papers 2086, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  2. Abel, Andrew B & Bernheim, B Douglas, 1991. "Fiscal Policy with Impure Intergenerational Altruism," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 59(6), pages 1687-1711, November.
  3. 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.
  4. Andreoni, James, 1989. "Giving with Impure Altruism: Applications to Charity and Ricardian Equivalence," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 97(6), pages 1447-58, December.
  5. 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.
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  8. Cho, In-Koo & Kreps, David M, 1987. "Signaling Games and Stable Equilibria," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, MIT Press, vol. 102(2), pages 179-221, May.
  9. Lundholm, Michael & Ohlsson, Henry, 2000. "Post mortem reputation, compensatory gifts and equal bequests," Economics Letters, Elsevier, vol. 68(2), pages 165-171, August.
  10. Hurd, Michael D, 1987. "Savings of the Elderly and Desired Bequests," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 77(3), pages 298-312, June.
  11. Banks, Jeffrey S & Sobel, Joel, 1987. "Equilibrium Selection in Signaling Games," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 55(3), pages 647-61, May.
  12. Barro, Robert J, 1974. "Are Government Bonds Net Wealth?," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 82(6), pages 1095-1117, Nov.-Dec..
  13. Bernheim, B Douglas, 1991. "How Strong Are Bequest Motives? Evidence Based on Estimates of the Demand for Life Insurance and Annuities," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 99(5), pages 899-927, October.
  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.
  15. W. G. Gale & J. K. Scholz, . "Intergenerational transfers and the accumulation of wealth," Institute for Research on Poverty Discussion Papers 1019-93, University of Wisconsin Institute for Research on Poverty.
  16. Banks, Jeffrey S., 1990. "A model of electoral competition with incomplete information," Journal of Economic Theory, Elsevier, vol. 50(2), pages 309-325, April.
  17. Tomes, Nigel, 1981. "The Family, Inheritance, and the Intergenerational Transmission of Inequality," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 89(5), pages 928-58, October.
  18. Bernheim, B Douglas, 1994. "A Theory of Conformity," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 102(5), pages 841-77, October.
  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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