Inheritance Reconsidered: Bequeathing Values and Money

With the largest intergenerational transfer of wealth in U.S. history under way, wealthy Americans are reconsidering the meaning of inheritance, thinking not just about the money but also the values they want to pass along with it, the New York Times reports.

The Center on Wealth and Philanthropy at Boston College has estimated that $41 trillion will change hands by 2052. And as the nature of wealth in the country changes, families are beginning to talk more openly about their money and to what purposes it might be used. Such discussions are happening against a backdrop of changing estate tax laws, innovative trust instruments, armies of newly minted wealth advisers, a troubled economy, and family ties complicated by divorce, remarriage, adoption, and domestic partnership.

As always, wealthy parents must decide whether to give now or later, how to provide for the companies and foundations they've started, and whether or not their children will be able to balance work and philanthropy. Theses days, however, the conversation often focuses more on values and meaning than on tax strategies and other financial matters. While many Americans want to bequeath as much wealth as possible to their children, for others the change in philosophy with respect to leaving a legacy reflects the entrepreneurial spirit that helped create that wealth in the first place. According to a 2007 U.S. Trust survey of people with $5 million in investable assets, only 20 percent of their wealth was inherited; other surveys place the figure lower.

Patricia Angus, principal of wealth advisory services at Shelterwood Financial Services LLC in New York City, said that many of her clients were changing how they define wealth. "The definition is broadening to include not just financial capital but human, social, and intellectual capital," said Angus. "Professionals used to think it was just, 'How do I transfer my financial assets at the lowest tax costs?' Now people are asking, 'What is the purpose and meaning of what I'm doing here, and how do I pass those down?'"

John Leland. "Breaking the Silence." New York Times 03/18/2008.