Bequests, Inheritances and Family Traditions

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Do “family traditions” influence bequest behavior? If an individual receives an inheritance from his parents, is he more likely to give a bequest to his children, even after controlling for the boost in wealth conferred by the inheritance? Family traditions are pertinent to a host of issues connected with intergenerational transfers: Ricardian equivalence and crowding out, the role of bequests in wealth accumulation, and the responsiveness of bequests to tax changes. Traditions also matter for issues related to behavioral economics, such as mental accounts, social learning, and the intergenerational transmission of values. Partially due to the paucity of data, few studies to date have analyzed bequests in conjunction with inheritances. We draw upon the U.S. Health and Retirement Survey, one of the few data sets with comprehensive information on both bequests and inheritances. We find that receipt of inheritances and intended bequests are positively and significantly related (both behaviorally and statistically) even after controlling for a host of household characteristics, most importantly household net worth. Discerning how to label this partial correlation is a daunting task. We provide a precise definition of “family traditions” and we show how they differ from other channels of influence. Our explanation of the nuances of traditions hinges on measuring the flexibility of bequest plans when wealth or other circumstances change. (For instance, will a wealth shortfall have a smaller impact on an inheritor who may be attempting to carry on a family tradition?) We find evidence in support of the idea that the propensity to bequeath out of wealth differs depending upon whether current wealth is large or small relative to inheritances received. We conclude that economists interested in intergenerational transfers should pay attention to the role of family traditions in bequest behavior.