The Disposition of Property: Transfers Between the Dead and the Living

Robert K Miller Jr., Jeffrey P P Rosenfeld, Stephen J McNamee. Handbook of Death and Dying. Editor: Clifton D Bryant. Volume 2. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2003.

A central fact of social life is that individual people die but societies live on, as does whatever personal property individuals have managed to accumulate over their lifetimes. Because death is inevitable, societies establish formal and informal rules for the disposition of accumulated property at death. The rules of inheritance constitute a complex and variable social, economic, and political process that links generations and provides the foundation for social organizational continuity.

Inheritance is an integral component of family, economic, and legal institutions. Inheritance practices are also a basic component of stratification systems and the intergenerational transfer of economic, political, and social resources. Clearly, there is considerable cultural and historical variation in the specific patterns of inheritance with respect to (a) what is transferred, including the forms of economic wealth and political and social resources; (b) amounts transferred; (c) the mechanisms and timing of transfers (inter vivos vs. testamentary transfers); and (d) the identity of heirs, proportionality of distributions, and rationales for both.

Inheritance varies intersocietally by mode of production and level of technology and is essentially absent in non-stratified societies. In hunting and gathering societies, productive technology is simple and little or no surplus is produced. Nature is a giant storehouse, equally accessible to all, and there is really no need or ability to accumulate more than that required for immediate needs. Under such conditions, the living accumulate little property and thus have little to bequeath.

Horticultural societies were based on small-scale but labor-intensive cultivation of what are essentially large gardens. This early form of food production was labor intensive—based on human labor and simple handheld tools. In instances in which population increases created land scarcity relative to the demand for it, the first forms of private productive property emerged as larger groups based on kinship ties were able to enforce claims to exclusive rights to productive resources—farming and hunting lands. Smaller and weaker groups, denied access to adequate productive resources, had little choice but to turn over a portion of their surplus production to the larger more powerful groups in exchange for access to farming and hunting land. This surplus was used to consolidate and increase economic and political power, and it seems to have been a necessary condition for the emergence of groups differentiated in terms of possession of and access to economic and political resources. Resulting group differences in power and privilege were intergenerationally transmitted along kinship lines. Thus the first consequential forms of inheritance emerged as a component of this early form of stratification.

Agrarian societies were more technologically advanced than horticultural societies. The use of draft animals and more complex and productive technology enabled the continuous cultivation of large tracts of land. This enabled groups in control of productive resources (land) to expropriate more surplus from a large mass of powerless, dependent cultivators and further increase and consolidate their position of power and privilege. In these societies, inheritance practices continued as a crucial mechanism for the intergenerational transmission of privilege and social class reproduction.

The productive technologies of modern industrial societies generate far more surplus than even the most advanced agrarian societies. For a variety of reasons (Lenski 1966), however, modern industrial societies exhibit less economic and political inequality, and their systems of stratification are less rigid. Nevertheless, all modern industrial societies exhibit considerable economic and political inequality, much of which is transmitted intergenerationally.

In advanced industrial societies such as the United States, rules and practices regarding the transfer of property at death are complex and varied, a subject to which we now turn. Increasingly, these rules and practices are codified in written wills and testaments. Inheritance has both material and symbolic components.

Testamentary Transfers Between the Dead and the Living

William Faulkner said, “The past is not dead. It is not even past.” He did not have the last will and testament in mind when he wrote those words, but he might as well have. The last will and testament is much more than just a legal document. It is also a social process that conveys power, status, and sometimes even conflict from one generation to the next. Along with the probate of a decedent’s estate come realignments in the social structure of a family. The legal process of probate usually occurs in a “timely fashion” (Uniform Probate Code 2000), but the social and emotional aspects of the last will and testament can reverberate for decades.

More than half a century ago, the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss (1949) observed that reciprocity is “the essence of social life” (p. 123). It is also the essence of estate planning, because people reciprocate for roles, relationships, and group memberships when they write their wills. Inheritance codes throughout the United States ensure the testamentary freedoms on which these reciprocities are based.

Two Testamentary Freedoms

Inheritance of wealth in the United States is based on the idea of testamentary freedom. This means that people have the right to leave their property to whomever they wish. Any of us can select our heirs and decide how much they will each inherit, as long as we abide by the inheritance codes of the state where we live (Sussman, Cates, and Smith 1970:4; Goetting and Martin 2001:243). Each of the 50 states safeguards the spouse’s right to a share of a married person’s estate—a right known as spousal inheritance (Hill 1995:63). And every state specifies how a decedent’s property should be partitioned among the surviving spouse and children in the event that a decedent dies intestate (i.e., without having written a will). Intestate codes throughout the United States all work on the assumption that property ought to pass to family members, and in this way, the codes reinforce the link between family and inheritance. The actual formula for intestate distribution varies from one state to another, but all intestate codes put primary focus on the rights of the widowed spouse and the decedent’s children.

Early in U.S. history, intestate distribution was established as a way of preventing a system of primogeniture. Primogeniture refers to the inheritance system in which the oldest son inherits all or most of the estate. The Founding Fathers in this country sought to break this tradition. Intestate codes, by stipulating that a decedent’s property must be divided among widowed spouse and all children, discourages primogeniture from becoming institutionalized. Intestate codes operate in two general ways. In states with an English common law tradition, the intestate codes specify per stirpes distribution, with spouse and children each inheriting equal shares. In states where laws are based on Napoleonic Code, the inheritance recipe is for the widow(er) to inherit half the estate and the remainder to be divided among the children. The Founding Fathers also made provision for a third contingency—that a person might die without leaving any heirs or survivors at all. Under those circumstances, a decedent’s estate will be governed by the process of escheat, which means that it goes directly to the State. Escheat is a rare event and one that also reflects the primacy of family. But in all three cases, the intent was to discourage the perpetuation of a landed elite. Recent sociological research shows that intestate codes also prevent the perpetuation of an underclass that is tied to the land. In some parts of the world, agriculture has become a subsistence occupation. In some parts of Italy, the family farm still passes from father to eldest son because the norm of primogeniture still operates there. The result is that the family farm typically becomes an albatross around the neck of the oldest son, which is the result of primogeniture in a depressed economy (Rosenfeld 1991). The options and patterns of inheritance are different when people write wills and name their beneficiaries, however.

Anybody who writes a will is free to name heirs and to make bequests both to family members and to outsiders (Rosenfeld 1991:75). In this sense, there are really two testamentary freedoms: (a) the freedom to decide how our property will be divided and (b) the freedom to decide who inherits what and why. The last will and testament is a set of directions for carrying out both decisions. Probate is the system for implementing them.

The decedent’s will must pass through probate before inheritance can happen. The purpose of probate is to “prove” that the decedent’s will is valid. The process begins with the filing of the will in probate court. Each of the 50 states has its own probate rules and a system of probate courts to oversee them. There are opportunities during probate for any legitimate party to raise objections to a decedent’s will. Assuming that the will is proven to be valid, it is admitted to probate and the executors of the estate are then free to distribute it among the heirs and beneficiaries who were named in the will.

The material or financial link between the living and the dead is established once and for all during probate. Mikow and Berkowitz (2001:6), describing inheritance among the nation’s top wealth holders, document how bequests and trust funds pass to heirs and beneficiaries during probate. Apart from these monetary changes, there will also be changes in the social structure of families resulting from probate. Executors acquire more status and power, and bequests often cause families to reflect on their relationships with the decedent and with one another. In this sense, then, inheritance is indeed a link between the living and the dead. Given its social and financial significance, writing a will does not occur randomly in American society. It occurs in some groups and social strata far more often than in others.

Characteristics of Will Writers

Interestingly, not everybody writes a will. The odds of dying testate are not random at all. Marital status, gender, race, and income are all powerful predictors of who writes wills. More married people die testate than unmarried people (Sussman et al. 1970:70; Goetting and Martin, 2001:245). Commenting on this social fact, Gretchen Hill (1995:65) concludes that married people make bequests that reflect their wishes and their social relationships, knowing that the intestate codes will not do so. Under the intestate codes—which take effect if somebody has died without having written a will—there is a formula for distributing property among the decedent’s widow(er) and children. According to Hill, most married people want to name the surviving spouse as sole or major beneficiary. After all, in most cases they have already comingled their assets and have been treating it as “community property” to which they both feel “entitled” (Hill 1995:60 ff.). That married people write wills more frequently than single people reflects this social fact.

Remarried people are even more likely to die testate. Parties to a remarriage have separate financial and social histories, and they each come to the new marriage with separate assets (Timmermann 2002). Not only are there preexisting assets, there are also preexisting obligations and responsibilities.

Sociologist Andrew Cherlin (1999) has referred to remarriage as an incomplete institution where “taken for granted rules, and well-established roles don’t apply” (p. 399). Remarried people often write wills to avoid conflict over inheritance after they die, although this does not always prevent will contests after a stepparent dies. The incidence of will contests in stepfamilies is much higher than for families at large, perhaps because (step) children have less stake in maintaining the continuity of a step-family (Rosenfeld 1998:174). More Americans are now divorcing, remarrying, or living together unmarried. Andrew Lee (2001:56), writing on estate disposition in same-sex couples, encourages such people to write wills because there is no marital deduction and no lifetime gift exemption to partners living together unmarried. Similarly, Gretchen Hill (1995:65) speaks of the matrix family where reciprocities are based on bonds of companionship and affection, not on prescriptive relationships. Hill predicts that these new family forms will affect who inherits what and why.

More people—both men and women—are now writing wills. But over the past 30 years, the incidence of women dying testate has steadily increased so that women are now more likely to die testate than men are. Research on colonial America indicates that testacy was rare and that 43.1% of male decedents died testate compared with 2% of female decedents in a sample of colonial probate records. By 1979, however, the incidence of testacy had increased for both men and for women, with 58.8% of men and 59.2% of women dying testate (Shammas, Salmon, and Dahlin 1987:16). Recently, Goetting and Martin (2001:253), describing a sample of older families, found that men were more likely to die testate than were women but that there could be cohort effects that would change the proportions of testate women and men in years to come. Research by the Internal Revenue Service (Johnson 1994; see also Rosenfeld 1991) suggests that women—at least the top wealth holders in their studies—bequeath their wealth differently. Even if their estates are smaller than those of men, they tend to make larger charitable contributions and are more likely to make larger bequests to particular children. Men, in contrast, usually make per stirpes distributions (i.e., bequests of equal size to all children). Wealthy men and women are much more likely to write wills than are their lower-income counterparts, which calls attention to how important net worth is in describing who writes wills in the United States today.

Research over the years points to a strong correlation between net worth and the likelihood of dying testate. Sussman et al. (1970:73), for example, show that the net worth of testate decedents in their sample was five times greater than the net worth of intestate decedents. There is a similar correlation in the work of Mikow and Berkowitz, 2001:5), who find that testacy is directly correlated with size of total gross estate. Finally, Goetting and Martin (2001:257) find that the incidence of testacy is correlated with the ability to leave a substantial “financial bequest” and that people with greater net worth are probably motivated to write wills so that they can take advantage of techniques and loopholes for minimizing “federal and state inheritance taxes” (Goetting and Martin 2001:260). A survey by the U.S. Trust (2000), one of the nation’s leading banks, sums it up by noting that 94% of the wealthiest Americans (the top 1% of all wealth holders) die testate, compared with 60% of middle-income Americans. But if net worth is positively correlated with dying testate, being black or Hispanic is negatively correlated.

Existing data on race, ethnicity, and testacy show that whites are more likely to have written wills than blacks or Hispanics. Following Goetting and Martin (2001:253), for example, 70.8% of whites in their sample, but only 25.8% of blacks had died testate. Says Conley (2001), “African Americans are less likely to inherit wealth, and when they do it is likely to be of less value than bequests received by white families” (p. 60). Based on the 1984 Panel Study of Income Dynamics, he showed that fewer blacks died testate and that they did not inherit as much wealth as whites did.

Will Form and Content

The form and content of the last will and testament allow it to be a financial, social, and psychological bridge between the living and the dead. The form and function of wills has changed during the past 75 years. Fewer wills are holographic, or handwritten. As wills have gotten longer and more standardized, it is more common to add codicils, or amendments at the end, rather than change the entire document. The addition of a codicil requires the help of an attorney, which means that the estate-planning process now involves periodic, sometimes annual consultation with estate planners. During earlier periods in American history, wills were not only handwritten but also highly individualized. The trend has been toward standardization both in form and in content. The actual conveyance must contain descriptions of the estate, the names of beneficiaries to it, and directions for partitioning the property among them. The will enters probate after the decedent dies, and it is presented to the court by the executor (or executrix). The executor(s) is a person or persons named in the will, whose responsibility is to oversee the probate of the will and the distribution of assets from the estate. In the event that a person dies intestate, without having written a will, it is the job of the administrator to oversee the intestate distribution of property.

In most cases, the beneficiaries are described in terms of their relationship to the decedent, as when, for example, the will says “To my daughter . . .” or “To my husband…” The will writer has the testamentary freedom to name beneficiaries outside the family (under intestate codes, the estate must be partitioned among family members) and to decide how much they each will get.

The same freedoms allow will makers to disinherit members of their family. Disinheritance occurs for many reasons. The most familiar is vindictive disinheritance, which occurs when there is ill will or bad feelings between a parent and child, as when this father said, “I have decided to leave my son, the sum of $1 and no more because from the moment he reached is majority he has been an unending source of anxiety, humiliation and sorrow for me” (Rosenfeld 1979). Other parents disinherit children who have fallen out of touch or disappeared. For example, one mother writes, “I do not leave my son any money because I have not seen or heard from him in 20 years” (Rosenfeld 1979. Finally, a small but significant number of parents disinherit children because they believe they have already done enough for their children and are not obliged to do anything more. Such “altruistic disinheritance” (Rosenfeld 1979) often leads to bequests for friends, neighbors, and local organizations. Disinheritance is a rare event—it occurs in perhaps 3% of probated wills (Rosenfeld 1998)—but it illustrates that the conveyance can cause repercussions among survivors. Families sometimes contest wills because of disinheritance or sometimes polarize into factions that either support or challenge the will writer’s decision. In many such cases, there are large sums of money involved, so the results of disinheritance are significant.

Due Execution

The will must be an official and legally binding document. Currently, the will is often written with the help of an attorney and must conform to the legal standards of the state where it will eventually be filed. The involvement of an attorney or other estate-planning professionals calls attention to an important sociological way that the bridging function of the last will and testament has changed (Rosenfeld 1991). During earlier periods in history, the last will and testament was a more spontaneous document, something that the will writer might prepare as death approached. In fact, the historian Philippe Aries (1981:27), writing on death and dying, says that the dying person has gradually lost control over all aspects of his or her own death in the Western World. The requirement of due execution is consistent with this trend. Now, more than ever before, it is important to write a will that will meet the legal and judicial requirements for probate.

Witnessing and Testamentary Capacity

The last will and testament must always be witnessed. Like other legally binding documents, it requires corroboration for it to be binding. Aries (1981) mentions that in earlier times the experience of dying was public; most people died with their family and friends at the bedside. In such situations, there was no doubt that the person was dying, and his or her final wishes were often heard by all those at the bedside. But the course of modernization has made death a more solitary experience. Today, far fewer people die with family and friends around them. The requirement that the will be witnessed calls attention to how much more solitary the process of aging and dying is in the United States today.

Finally, the will writer must swear that he or she is of sound mind at the time that the will is written. The will is not binding if it can be shown that the will writer was mentally impaired or somehow coerced or threatened to write the will.

Trends in Will Writing

Trends in the larger estate-planning industry are reshaping the last will and testament. It is still very much a bridge between the living and the dead but does not serve the same social functions as it once did.

Estate planning has emerged as an “industry” in the United States. At earlier times in American history, estate planning was simply delegated to the family lawyer and was usually a one-time procedure. But the estate-planning industry now encourages will writers to re-evaluate their estate plan every year or so. The variety of trust and gift options is endless. And so are the opportunities to redo an estate plan. Current strategies involve frequent consultation with estate-planning professionals. Instead of being a onetime decision, the writing of one’s will can occur many times or can involve the use of codicils, additions, disclaimers, and other ways of changing the original meaning of the will.

The United States has become an “aging society” in which more people than ever before are living into their 70s and 80s. The aging of the U.S. population has affected the inheritance of wealth because more people than ever before die when their children are grown, who may actually have full-grown children of their own. In 1940, life expectancy at birth in the United States was 60.8 for men and 65.2 for women. By 2000, life expectancy had increased to 74.1 for men and 79.5 for women (Anderson and DeTurk 2002). It is clear that during the first half of the 20th century, people died younger and left behind more dependents and legal minors. The demographer Peter Uhlenberg (1980), for example, mentions that most adults now live long enough to know all or most of their grandchildren and that a child born in 1900 had less than a 50% chance of knowing even two of his or her grandparents. Most grandparents died while their grandchildren were very young or before most of them had even been born. In contrast, most children born today can expect to have an extended relationship with two or more of their grandparents (Cherlin and Furstenburg 1986:26).

Apart from having more years to establish relationships with grandchildren, there are more years to assess the financial and social needs of sons and daughters. Some economists have found that there is a tendency to bequeath “altruistically,” which means making larger bequests to needier offspring and smaller bequests to the offspring who are better off (Becker and Tomes 1976; Gale and Scholz 1994). More recently, Mikow and Berkowitz (2000), examining the bequests of the wealthiest Americans, found that parents made larger bequests to children who were not in the workforce and smaller bequests to children in the workforce.

These discussions are salient because they reflect the “graying” of the U.S. population and its impact on inheritance. Older grandparents now have more time to nurture relationships with all their grandchildren. Indeed, nearly a third of U.S. grandparents are now step-grandparents because of their children’s remarriages. The addition of step-grandchildren to a family must also affect estate planning, although the impact is not always predictable (Rosenfeld 1991). Relationships with step-grandchildren and step-inlaws more generally are not yet well defined socially. The result is that there are still few norms dictating what a step-grandchild or, for that matter, a stepson-in-law, ought to inherit. But even in ambiguous and socially undefined situations such as this, inheritance can still act as a bridge between the dead and the living.

Increased life expectancy means that a surviving spouse now has more time than in the past to develop new roles and relationships. In the 1950s, the average U.S. woman outlived the average U.S. man by only one year. In 2001, U.S. women typically outlived men by 8 years (Anderson and DeTurk 2002). Old age now means new roles and relationships for growing numbers of older people, especially older widowed women. In this context, Betty Friedan (1993:571) speaks of old age as “adventure” and describes new life “journeys,” which include relocating to new communities, becoming involved with religious or volunteer work, returning to school, and cultivating new friendships and intimate attachments. These can become the basis for inheritance (Rosenfeld 1979, 1991) when the attachments become strong enough and the older person feels that his or her children are already provided for.

Increased life expectancy and survivorship do indeed shape the bridge between the living and the dead. More older people now have time to know their grandchildren, and to decide how to best help each of them. The same can also be said for their adult sons and daughters, some of whom may be needier than others. Finally, the longer time spent widowed means more opportunities to explore other options in American society.

Symbolic Transfers

Continuity of Power, Status, and Wealth

Most parents wish to maximize their children’s life chances. Parents may wish to maximize the life chances of their children for any number of reasons: to enhance the survival of their own genetic material into future generations, to provide testimony to their genetic endowments or child-rearing skills, or simply because they want the best for their children.

To the extent that parents are successful in maximizing their children’s future, privilege, power, and prestige are transferred intergenerationally. In this way, existing inequalities are largely reproduced across generations, although imperfectly. Existing inequalities are not perfectly reproduced because some parents are more successful than others in advancing the social position of children and some children are more individually successful than others. Nevertheless, inheritance provides the major mechanism for the reproduction of privilege and social class inequalities in society.

Inheritance of an estate is the most obvious and direct form of wealth transfer. Broadly defined, however, inheritance includes more than a bulk estate that decedents bequeath at death. Indeed, the inheritance of privilege across generations occurs throughout the lives of both parents and children and beyond to the lives of future generations.

In modern industrial societies, including the United States, there are multiple mechanisms for the transfer of wealth, power, and prestige across generations. These mechanisms represent cumulative advantages of inheritance that advance the life chances of children born into privilege (McNamee and Miller forthcoming). Although these advantages are greatest at the top of any given stratification system, they are available, in varying degrees, to all except those at the very bottom of the stratification system. These mechanisms include (a) provision of standard of living and quality of life from birth, (b) higher life expectancy and quality of health from birth, (c) provision for formal education and enhanced opportunities to acquire market capacities in the form of skills and knowledge, (d) provision for the acquisition of social and cultural capital, (e) inter vivos transfers at critical junctures in the life course, and finally, (f) lump sum estates in the form of bequests from parents at death.

First, children initially inherit the standard of living of their parents. This represents an almost pure form of inheritance because young children are entirely dependent on their parents for their well-being and life circumstances. As children age, they may take on more responsibility for acquiring resources that contribute to their own welfare and sometimes that of the family, especially in preindustrial societies. With extended childhood dependence in industrial societies, however, the level of inheritance of childhood standard of living and quality of life is increased. The initial life circumstances of children inherited from parents, in turn, sets a starting point and an initial trajectory for the child’s own advancement.

Second, children also inherit quality of health in childhood that in turn affects future development and life expectancy. Quality of nutrition, availability and access to health care, and sources of prevention against risks for disease and injury for children not only affect quality of life in adulthood but also probable adult earning power.

Third, children further inherit educational opportunities that also enhance their future life chances. The opportunities may come in the form of knowledge and skills passed on informally through parents or indirectly through parentally mediated access to formal education and credentials.

Fourth, parents provide social capital to children in the form of access to social networks and other sources of privileged information. The more well-placed and well-connected parents are to sources of power and influence in society, the more children are potentially advantaged through access to these connections.

Fifth, children acquire cultural capital through their parents—that is, knowledge of the norms, values, beliefs, and standards of conduct associated with the groups to which they belong or to which they may aspire. Through the process of childhood socialization, children of privilege acquire social graces or savoirfaire. They acquire a cultural cache that enables them to move comfortably—seemingly effortlessly—in high-powered social circles. This cache includes “proper” manner, bearing, demeanor and style, a natural unpracticed application of etiquette, and taken-for-granted forms of cultural knowledge that allow access to and acceptance in privileged inner circles.

Sixth, parents provide inter vivos transfers of economic capital to children continuously and especially at critical junctures in the child’s life, such as going to college, getting married, buying a house, starting a family, or starting a business. Infusion of parental capital may also occur when children experience setbacks in their own lives, such as loss of a job, illness, injury, divorce, or other major alteration of life circumstance. In this way, parental infusion of inter vivos capital provides insulation against children’s downward mobility. These transfers that occur while parents are still alive represent early withdrawals on bequests that would otherwise occur at the death of parents. Parents may be encouraged to make such transfers not only based on children’s needs or so that their children may take advantage of opportunities when the occur but also as a means to avoid estate taxation when they die. Finally, at the death of parents, children may receive bulk or lump sum estates. The estates include accumulated property of parents that becomes available for transfer after their death.

Although spouses and children may be the most frequent recipients of these advantages of inheritance, other relatives, especially grandchildren, may also benefit from this largesse, thereby increasing the reach of influence of the deceased even further beyond the grave. Bequests not only benefit the living, they also represent a symbolic validation of the decedent’s life. In this way, the family fortune functions as a living testimony to the success of the deceased.

Naming as a Form of Social Transfer

One of the most obvious and significant forms of symbolic transfer between the dead and the living is through the process of naming. Names may live on beyond the life of the deceased through relatives who bear the name or some variant and through the naming of property such as buildings, roads, monuments, and charitable donations in honor of the deceased. Names provide continuity across generations (Lieberson 2000). A surname given at birth represents not just a future identity and form of address for the recipient but a significant social inheritance and form of initial social placement. A surname establishes a direct symbolic link to prior generations and extended kinship networks. It places the new member of society into an already existing set of social relationships.

In addition to surnames, children may be given the first name of a parent or other relative. Replicating first names across generations serves to highlight these connections and to honor the namesake. Because familial continuity is more often traced patrilineally, the replication of first names across generations is more prevalent for males than females, although the difference has declined over time (Rossi 1965). The use of the “Jr.” suffix to highlight this replication was initially used to mark the status of wealthy families. The “Jr.” suffix, however, has come to be widely adopted by all social classes (Taylor 1974). On the other hand, the practice of using numerical serialization (e.g., Pierre S. du Pont IV) remains more limited to the upper class (Broad 1996). The upper class also more commonly use recombinant appellation—the use of family surnames, especially maternal ones, as first or middle names for children to make explicit the linkage of wealthy upper class families (Broad 1996).

Family Genealogy as Validation of Status Claims

Justification of inherited wealth necessarily implicates the past. The naming of children and grandchildren after founding fathers of family fortunes symbolizes birthright and the connection of the present with the past. Family genealogy as personal histories may also be used as validation of status claims. Descendants of Sally Hemings, a black slave of Thomas Jefferson, for instance, claim Jefferson as the father of her children. The significance of this lies not in the genealogy alone, but specifically in the connection to Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and third president of the United Sates.


The term autoinheritance refers to practices whereby an individual creates memorials to the self, designated others, or both (McNamee and Miller 1989). Examples include the creation of named foundations, grants, or scholarships. Funds for all manner of public goods, including parks as well as buildings (hospitals, libraries, museums, schools) or components thereof, may be provided contingent on recognition in the form of naming. Through auto-inheritance, the deceased achieve a kind of immortality, “living on” through philanthropic giving and the naming of such gifts on behalf of themselves, family members, or designated others. These forms of auto-inheritance are typically limited to the wealthy or those who have few or no heirs. For the less privileged, auto-inheritance is typically limited to the purchase of elaborate grave markers or monuments and other memorials to the self that are more limited in terms of audience and scope.

Sentimental Gifts as Sacred Objects

Certain personal effects and items of the decedent have important emotional and sentimental, and hence symbolic, value to the living that is quite independent of their simple economic value. The recipient may value the item simply because the decedent bequeathed it. The item is material evidence that the relationship was important to the decedent—”he remembered me.” The item may be of greater value if it indicates that the relationship was important or somehow special to the decedent. In such cases, the recipient may define the gift as “priceless.” Items that are formally bequeathed generally have greater significance than those acquired by less direct means, because the former are more clear evidence of the significance that the deceased placed in the relationship. Sometimes however, a bequest is not formally included in a written will. Rather, a survivor in authority informs other survivors that the decedent wanted them to have certain items. Another scenario is when a survivor in authority permits other survivors to go through the decedent’s belongings to select items that they may want. Such indirect bequests reveal much about the structure and significance of relationships between decedent and survivors.

In sum, the significance of such transfers lies not in their economic value but their social and symbolic value. The objects represent relationships, and the transfers are bridges connecting the dead with the living by providing material substance for memories and the connectedness of lives those memories represent.

What Is Not Transferred?

Sociologically, it is instructive to examine what is not transferred between the dead and the living. Although we were unable to locate research on this issue, it seems clear that items that are not transferred have one or more of the following qualities. First, most occupations and political positions (chief, king) are no longer inherited directly because they are not transferable property. Second, material goods that have little or no monetary value and presumed by the decedent to have no symbolic value to survivors are not bequeathed. Third, decedents do not intentionally bequeath items that would damage or embarrass heirs. In fact, before death, they may attempt to destroy such items. If their efforts are unsuccessful, survivors may make similar efforts or repudiate the inheritance. Fourth, efforts may be made to manage or neutralize spoiled identities, undesirable qualities, or disreputable activities of a decedent so they are not transferred to heirs. Attempts may be made to correct or suppress bad reputations or evidence of illegal or immoral activity. For example, if discovered, evidence of adultery, other “indiscretions,” or certain questionable sexual predilections will not be passed on to survivors. Many are never informed that their ancestors were deviants or criminals—pirates, horse thieves, war profiteers, draft dodgers, members of racist or radical political organizations, or the like—because, with the help of the living, such potentially damaging information was taken to the grave. Adoptive parents may withhold embarrassing information about their child’s birth mother or biological father. Finally, information about ethnic, religious, or racial origins that could be socially damaging may not be transferred. For example, an unknown number of Jewish children were intentionally raised as Gentiles during the Second World War to protect them from the virulent anti-Semitism of the period. Finally, those who pass as white deny their Native American or African racial heritage. In short, efforts are made to suppress stigmatizing aspects of the identities of ancestors.

In sum, not everything that could be transferred from the dead to the living, is in fact, transferred. By examining what is not transferred, we draw attention to a quality of intergenerational transfers that is often overlooked: that the economic, political, and social effects of bequests must be minimally beneficial to heirs.


Individuals die, but societies live on, as does whatever personal property individuals have managed to accumulate over their lifetimes. As a result, societies develop patterns of inheritance—formal and informal rules for the disposition of accumulated property at death. Inheritance practices are a basic component of family, economic, and legal institutions; they constitute a basic component of stratification systems as the mechanism of intergenerational transfer of resources. All modern industrial societies exhibit considerable economic, political, and social inequality, much of which is transmitted intergenerationally.

The specific norms and practices that constitute America’s system of inheritance have varied over time, place, ethnicity, and social class. Will writing has been affected by growth in size and influence of the estate planning industry, demographic changes, and changes in family structure.

In its most general sense, inheritance includes not only the familiar lump sum estates bequeathed at death, but also political and social transfers of positional authority, status honor, and reputation, as well as various inter vivos transfers, some of which may occur at critical junctures in the life course of the recipient. Thus, under a broad conceptualization of inheritance, provision of standard of living and quality of life from birth, higher life expectancy and quality of health from birth, provision for formal education and enhanced opportunities to acquire market capacities in the form of skills and knowledge, and provision for the acquisition of social and cultural capital are additional components.

Finally, inheritance has a symbolic dimension. Bequests not only benefit the living, they also constitute a symbolic validation of the decedent’s life. The family fortune functions as a living testimony to the success of the deceased. Other symbolic transfers include naming and auto-inheritance—practices whereby individuals create memorials to the self, designated others, or both. Certain personal effects and items of the decedent have important emotional and sentimental, and hence symbolic, value to the living that is quite independent of their simple economic value. Such objects represent relationships, and the transfers are bridges connecting the dead with the living by providing material substance for memories and the connectedness of lives those memories they represent. Not everything that could be transferred from the dead to the living, however, is in fact, transferred. Property may not be transferred, for instance, if it is either not useful to heirs or damaging to the reputation of the deceased.

Inheritance is a bridge between the dead and the living, but it is not a simple and unchanging bridge. What is transferred, when it is transferred, and to whom it is transferred vary considerably over time and place, reflecting and reinforcing basic structures of society.