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Inheritances and the Distribution of Wealth or Whatever Happened to the Great Inheritance Boom? Results from the SCF and PSID

  • Edward N. Wolff
  • Maury Gittleman

Using data from both the Survey of Consumer Finances (SCF) and the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID), we found that on average over the period from 1984 to 2007, about one fifth of American households at a given point of time received a wealth transfer and these accounted for about a quarter of their net worth. Over the lifetime, about 30 percent of households could expect to receive a wealth transfer and these would account for close to 40 percent of their net worth near time of death. However, there is little evidence of an inheritance "boom." In fact, from 1989 to 2007, the share of households in the SCF reporting a wealth transfer fell by 2.5 percentage points. The average value of inheritances received among all households did increase but at a slow pace, by 10 percent, but wealth transfers as a proportion of current net worth fell sharply over this period, from 29 to 19 percent. We also found, somewhat surprisingly, that inheritances and other wealth transfers tend to be equalizing in terms of the distribution of household wealth. Indeed, the addition of wealth transfers to other sources of household wealth has had a sizeable effect on reducing the inequality of wealth.

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Paper provided by National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Working Papers with number 16840.

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Date of creation: Feb 2011
Date of revision:
Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:16840
Note: PR
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  1. Menchik, Paul L & David, Martin, 1983. "Income Distribution, Lifetime Savings, and Bequests," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 73(4), pages 672-90, September.
  2. Edward N. Wolff & Ajit Zacharias & Thomas Masterson, 2012. "Trends In American Living Standards And Inequality, 1959–2007," Review of Income and Wealth, International Association for Research in Income and Wealth, vol. 58(2), pages 197-232, 06.
  3. Laitner, J. & Ohlsson, H., 1998. "Bequest Motives: a Comparison of Sweden and the United States," Papers 1998:16, Uppsala - Working Paper Series.
  4. 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.
  5. Kessler, Denis & Masson, Andre, 1989. "Bequest and Wealth Accumulation: Are Some Pieces of the Puzzle Missing?," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 3(3), pages 141-52, Summer.
  6. Wojciech Kopczuk & Joseph P. Lupton, 2004. "To leave or not to leave: the distribution of bequest motives," Finance and Economics Discussion Series 2004-33, Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (U.S.).
  7. Jeffrey Brown & Scott Weisbenner, 2004. "Intergenerational Transfers and Savings Behavior," NBER Chapters, in: Perspectives on the Economics of Aging, pages 181-204 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
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