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Inheritance is the practice of passing on property, title, debts, and obligations upon the death of an individual. It has long played an important role in human societies. The rules of inheritance differ between societies and have changed over time.


In common law jurisdictions, an heir is a person who is entitled to receive a share of the decedent's property, via the rules of inheritance in the jurisdiction where the decedent died or owned property at the time of death. Strictly speaking, one becomes an heir only upon the death of the decedent. It is improper to speak of the "heir" of a living person, since the exact identity of the persons entitled to inherit are not determined until the time of death. In a case where an individual has such a position that only her/his own death before that of the decedent would prevent the individual from becoming an heir, the individual is called an heir apparent. There is a further concept of jointly inheriting, pending renunciation by all but one, which is called coparceny.

In modern legal use, the terms inheritance and heir refer only to succession of property from a decedent who has died intestate (that is, without a will). It is a common mistake to refer to the recipients of property through a will as heirs when they are properly called beneficiaries, devisees, or legatees.


Detailed studies have been made in the Anthropological and sociological customs of patrilineal succession, also known as gavelkind, where only male children can inherit. Some cultures also employ matrilineal succession only passing property along the female line. Other practices include primogeniture, under which all property goes to the eldest child, specifically it is often the eldest son, or ultimogeniture, in which everything is left to the youngest child. Some ancient societies and most modern states employ partible inheritance, under which every child inherits (usually equally). Historically, there were also mixed systems:
  • According to Islamic inheritance jurisprudence, sons inherit twice as much as daughters. The complete laws governing inheritance in Islam are complicated and take into account many kinship relations (so wills are usually recommended), but in principle males inherit twice as much as females. There is one interesting exception: The Indonesianmarker Minangkabau people from West part of Sumatramarker island despite being strong Muslims employ only complete matrilineal succession with property and land passing down from mother to daughter. They find no contradiction between their culture and faith.
  • Among ancient Israelites, the inheritance is patrilineal. It comes from the father, who bequeaths only to his male descendants (daughters don't inherit). The eldest son received twice as much as the other sons. The father gives his name to his children; for example: the sons of Israel are called Israelites, because the land belonged to the father, and every one of the his twelve sons gave his name to his descendants. Example: the sons of Judah are called Yehudi (which is translated into Latin as Judaeus and into English as Jew.)
  • Among Galicianmarker people it was typical that all children (both men and women) had a part of the inheritance, but one son (the one who inherited the house) inherited one-third of all the inheritance. This son was called the mellorado (literally, "improved upon"). In some villages the mellorado even received two-thirds of all the inheritance. This two-thirds would be all the family's lands, while other children received their part in money.
  • In eastern Swedish culture, from the 13th century until the 19th century, sons inherited twice as much as daughters. This rule was introduced by the Regent Birger Jarl, and it was regarded as an improvement in its era, since daughters were previously usually left without.

Employing differing forms of succession can affect many areas of society. Gender roles are profoundly affected by inheritance laws and traditions. Primogeniture has the effect of keeping large estates united and thus perpetuating an elite. With partible inheritance large estates are slowly divided among many descendants and great wealth is thus diluted, leaving higher opportunities to individuals to make a success. (If great wealth is not diluted, the positions in society tend to be much more fixed and opportunities to make an individual success are lower.)

Inheritance can be organized in a way that its use is restricted by the desires of someone (usually of the decedent). An inheritance may have been organized as a fideicommissum, which usually cannot be sold or diminished, only its profits are disposable. A fideicommissum's succession can also be ordered in a way that determines it long (or eternally) also with regard to persons born long after the original descendant. Royal succession has typically been more or less a fideicommissum, the realm not (easily) to be sold and the rules of succession not to be (easily) altered by a holder (a monarch).

In more archaic days, the possession of inherited land has been much more like a family trust than a property of an individual. Even in recent years, the sale of the whole of or a significant portion of a farm in many European countries required consent from certain heirs, and/or heirs had the intervening right to obtain the land in question with same sales conditions as in the sales agreement in question.

In the Bible

The inheritance is patrilineal. The father—that is, the owner of the land—bequeaths only to his male descendents, so the Promised Land passes from one Jewish father to his sons. The Promised Land is called "The Land of Israel" because it belongs to Israel, and his sons are called Israelites denoting their connection with the land of their father.

There was one exception. In Numbers 27:1-4, the daughters of Zelophehad (Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah) of the tribe of Manasseh come to Moses and ask for their father's inheritance, as they have no brothers. In Numbers 27:7-11, Jehovah grants that if a man has no sons, then his daughters may inherit, and lays down the order of inheritance: a man's sons inherit first, daughters if no sons, brothers if he has no children, and so on.

Later, in Numbers 36, some of the heads of the families of the tribe of Mannasseh come to Moses and point out that, if a daughter inherits and then marries a man not from her paternal tribe, her land will pass from her birth-tribe's inheritance into her marriage-tribe's. So a further rule is laid down: if a daughter inherits land, she must marry someone within her father's tribe. (The daughters of Zelophehad marry the sons' of their father's brothers. There is no indication that this was not their choice.)

Inheritance Inequality

The distribution of inherited wealth is drastically unequal in the United States. The majority receive little while only a small number inherit extremely large amounts.

In terms of inheritance inequality, most economists and sociologists focus on the intergenerational transmission of income or wealth which has a direct impact on one’s mobility (or immobility) and class position in society. Nations differ on the political structure and policy options that govern the transfer of wealth. Despite these differences in policies, a similarity is evident: there continues to be racial and economic discrimination and stratification in countries with the greatest disparities. Most sociologists would agree that the policies and socioeconomic conditions in various communities have a direct impact on intergenerational financial relationships and even the opportunities for wealth later in life. This is not only a fact in the United States, but most nations across the globe. According to the principle of testamentary freedom, individuals should be able to dispose of their accumulated property at death as they see fit. Inheritance and merit, however, are incompatible ways to distribute valued resources in society. To the extent that resources are distributed on the basis of inheritance, they are not distributed on the basis of merit.

According to the American federal government statistics compiled by Mark Zandi, currently of “Moody’s”, back in 1985, the average inheritance was $39,000. In subsequent years, the overall amount of total annual inheritance was more than doubled, reaching nearly $200 billion. By 2050, there is an estimated $25 trillion average inheritance transmitted across generations. Some researchers have attributed this rise to the baby boomer generation. Historically, the baby boomers were the largest influx of children conceived after WW2. For this reason, Thomas Shapiro suggests that this generation “is in the midst of benefiting from the greatest inheritance of wealth in history.” Perhaps the baby boomer inheritance will not only fuel the growing gap between inheritances causing more inequality, but also may intensify and worsen racial inequality and race relations. The wealth inheritance will continue to worsen the already increasing (income and inheritance) inequality.

Inheritance and Race

Inheritances are transfers of the unconsumed material accumulations of previous generations. Inheritances therefore take on a special meaning with respect to black and white Americans: they directly link the disadvantaged economic position and prospects of today’s blacks to the disadvantaged positions of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations.

Depending on one’s race, one inherits an inevitable amount of privilege or disadvantage at the time of their birth. A number of possible explanations for this gap have been suggested, particularly differences in income and various socio-economic characteristics between black and white households. Research reveals that race could be serving as a proxy for other, more fundamental, determinants of differences in inheritance. Among the findings, it was stated that a “father’s education and variables indicating the economic conditions of childhood were the most important in predicting the size of inheritances.” Based on samples of households in 1976 and 1989, researchers found that white households are at least twice as likely to receive an inheritance (than black households). White households are almost three times as likely to expect to receive an inheritance in the future. Hence, controlling for other factors, these researchers found that race is important in explaining whether or not a household has received an inheritance and the size of the inheritance.

Whites average both better health and inheritance than minority groups in the United States. Blacks and Hispanics are disadvantaged with respect to financial and human capital resources, more specifically, lower educational attainment, income, inheritances, and great concentrations in lower-skilled occupations. Additionally, due to employment discrimination and residential segregation, minority households “have historically been denied the opportunity to accumulate wealth” and thus, acquire inheritance.

Inheritance and Social Stratification

Inheritance inequality has a significant effect on stratification. Inheritance is an integral component of family, economic, and legal institutions, and a basic mechanism of class stratification. It also affects the distribution of wealth at the societal level. The total cumulative effect of inheritance on stratification outcomes takes three forms. The first form of inheritance is the inheritance of cultural capital (i.e. linguistic styles, higher status social circles, and aesthetic preferences). The second form of inheritance is through familial interventions in the form of inter vivos transfers (i.e. gifts between the living), especially at crucial junctures in the life courses. Examples include during a child’s milestone stages, such as going to college, getting married, getting a job, and purchasing a home. The third form of inheritance is the transfers of bulk estates at the time of death of the testators, thus resulting in significant economic advantage accruing to children during their adult years. The origin of the stability of inequalities is material (personal possessions one is able to obtain) and is also cultural, rooted either in varying child-rearing practices that are geared to socialization according to social class and economic position. Child-rearing practices among those who inherit wealth may center around favoring some groups at the expense of others at the bottom of the social hierarchy.

Sociological and Economic Effects of Inheritance Inequality

The degree to which economic status and inheritance is transmitted across generations determines one’s life chances in society. Although many have linked one’s social origins and educational attainment to life chances and opportunities, education cannot serve as the most influential predictor of economic mobility. In fact, children of well-off parents generally receive better schooling and benefit from material, cultural, and genetic inheritances. Likewise, schooling attainment is often persistent across generations and families with higher amounts of inheritance are able to acquire and transmit higher amounts of human capital. Lower amounts of human capital and inheritance can perpetuate inequality in the housing market and higher education. Research reveals that inheritance plays an important role in the accumulation of housing wealth. Those who receive an inheritance are more likely to own a home than those who do not regardless of the size of the inheritance.

Oftentimes, minorities and individuals from socially disadvantaged backgrounds receive less inheritance and wealth. As a result, minorities are more likely to rent homes or live in poorer neighborhoods, as well as achieve lower educational attainment compared whites in America. Individuals with a substantial amount of wealth and inheritance often intermarry with others of the same social class in order to protect their wealth and ensure the continuous transmission of inheritance across generations; thus perpetuating a cycle of privilege. For this reason, it can even be argued that one’s inheritance places them in a specific social class position that requires a level of participation in certain activities that promote the oppression of lower-class individuals in terms of the social hierarchy and system of stratification.

Nations with the highest income and wealth inequalities often have the highest rates of homicide and disease (such as obesity, diabetes, and hypertension). A New York Times article reveals that the U.S. is the world’s wealthiest nation, but “ranks 29th in life expectancy, right behind Jordan and Bosnia.” This is highly attributed to the significant gap of inheritance inequality in the country. For this reason, it is clear that when social and economic inequalities centered on inheritance are perpetuated by major social institutions such as family, education, religion, etc., these differing life opportunities are transmitted from each generation. As a result, this inequality becomes part of the overall social structure.


Many states have inheritance taxes or death duties, under which a portion of any estate goes to the government. In the United States, all inheritances are left tax free up until the first million dollars; other nations have different policies.

Inheritance and Education

The relationship between wealth and children's education, schooling, neighborhoods and social class has a direct correlation to inheritance. This has led many people who have received inheritance to a more prosperous and fulfilling educational life.

Children’s education is affected in many ways by inheritance. People believe that education and test scoring is directly linked to the socio-economic situation that the children come from. This means that children who have been born into a family with greater wealth will perform better on standardized tests. There is an absolute correlation between socio-economic status and test scores and this is not a random occurrence, but in fact happens all the time, every time This has been a common belief in the studies done. There is every reason to believe that a child who comes from parents who are well off will receive a better education, however, when people take a closer look on how that child’s parents accumulated their wealth they will find two very different ways. If a family came into money through both parents working, hard work and dedication to work, that child is often successful. However, when a child has both parents working all the time, their day to day education and child raising is an afterthought. The other situation is a child who has been born into old money or inherited wealth. That child’s parents often do not work as many hours since they have money that has been inherited, so that leaves them more time to spend with their children. For people who have inherited a great deal of wealth, one of the parents may not work, so their focus can be on their children and raising them. This provides more opportunities for that child to experience things than a child whose parents work all the time.

Families who have inherited wealth in the United States are much more likely to have their children attend prestigious colleges. It does not start in high school or college however. The middle and lower classes are getting edged out by the wealthier families because of the education they receive since they are born. Wealthy parents are engaging in a new trend, hiring tutors for their preschoolers. Preschool tutoring, which costs $75 to $150 an hour, is especially popular in Manhattan, where entrance to certain private schools is extremely competitive. Many families can not afford such extreme measures, but this is another way wealthy families are taking that most can not afford. When a child is born into money he or she is presented with many opportunities to become successful. Private schools, boarding schools, prep school and other high income schools are attended because their parents can afford it. More time is spent on teaching the children when they are young and academics are the foundation for these children. When parents are willing to spend $30,000 a year for their children’s education in high school it provides them with opportunities that many other children do not get to experience. Many people who pay that money are making an investment in their child’s education knowing that the structure they receive at one of these schools will not allow for their children to fail, and ensuring them acceptance to colleges. When they are at these preparatory schools, the main goal is to get the wealthy children into college. On the other hand, many public schools also prepare students for college, but the vast backgrounds, talents, and aspirations of students that attend many public schools are not as similar to those at the wealthy schools. These public schools do not always prepare their students for higher education. Public schools are controlled by the state, and they have to adhere to specific demands that are put on them. Graduation rates, dropout rates, test scoring are all different ways the government judges a school on how well it is doing. The main goal at these public schools is not to prepare the students for college; it is to prepare them for many different fields that the students could possibly go into. Many of these activities are for students that will not attend colleges. At many private schools and boarding schools, it has been found that nearly 100% of the students go on to college. The parents who can afford to send their children to this type of school expect nothing less and are basically promised that their child will go to college. As far as wealthy children going to college is one thing, going to some of the best colleges in the country is another. The wealthy parents are the reason that this is happening and experts say the change in the student population is a result of steep tuition increases. The phenomenal efforts many wealthy parents put into preparing their children to apply to the best schools is much higher than those who are not. This has been the college situation since colleges were founded, but many schools have tried taking action to help less fortunate students, who are academically suited to attend go to these colleges. Diversity and financial aid are two ways that colleges have tried to help these children attend college. However, the facts prove that wealthy children are occupying the biggest percentage of college students. The amount of students enrolled in top colleges whose parents are making the national median of $53,000 is becoming fewer and the number of students whose parents make $200,000 or more are getting accepted to these schools. The students who come from inherited wealth are benefiting from both their previous education as well as their and their parents inheritance. This is becoming an issue of problems for future social mobility because universities are worried that their universities are reproducing social advantage instead of serving as an engine of mobility. When the students at these top universities and colleges, public and private, are the wealthiest people in America, it gives them the fast track to success while the families who are not in the top tier of wealth are stuck going to worse colleges.

Ivy League schools as well as other top private universities are taking all the steps to be the best, admit the best and wealthiest, hire the best teachers and have the best amenities a school could offer. The money these schools are able to obtain is due to tuition and monetary gifts. Many family who have inherited wealth in America want to send their children to the wealthiest and best schools and that is exactly what they are doing. The gilding of the Ivies offers a striking manifestation of the contemporary American tendency of the rich to get much richer. This is a problem because it is leading to the deterioration of public institutions in the United States and thus making a gap between the wealthy and everyone else even larger. Teachers as well as researchers are also choosing the Ivy League rather than public education institutions. For better or worse, the infusion of riches at the Ivy Plus schools has dramatically extended their lead over everyone else, especially the public colleges and universities that collectively serve the vast majority of American students. This dominance—and the inequities that it fosters—are likely only to grow.

Families who have inherited money do not only just go to these schools for the education. Wealthy families who have children attending prestigious colleges also have the ability to make connections with other wealthy, successful and powerful people. Going to school with the grandchild or child of CEO of a Fortune 500 company provides contacts that will benefit them for the rest of their lives. An example of another way wealthy children make connections is through Greek life while at school. United States Presidents, Judges, and other political positions as well as CEO’s and other successful people were involved with Greek life while at college. Many wealthy people encourage their child to join a fraternity or a sorority because of the connections they will make with other wealthy students, and when looking for a job these connections will help them. The numbers certainly seem to back this theory up. A mere 8.5% of full-time university undergraduates are members of either a fraternity or a sorority. Not only have fraternities been the breeding ground of those 120 Forbes 500s chief executive officers, they also have spawned 48% of all U.S. presidents, 42% of U.S. senators, 30% of U.S. congressmen, and 40% of U.S. Supreme Court justices, according to data from The North-American Interfraternity Conference. This is not a luxury people who can not afford private or boarding high schools and prestigious colleges get to have. Former CEO of Wachovia Ken Thompson was a Beta Theta Pi at the University of North Carolina says, The opportunity to meet people from different backgrounds and places, and the connections have continued beyond my university years to my business life. Students that do not come from wealth can not afford Greek expenses on top of tuition and that is why you see these drastically differing numbers.

The children who are born into money and are given inheritance are not only born with a leg up on others financially, they are born into more opportunity and are guaranteed a higher social class. There is little social mobility for these people because they will inherit wealth and pass that on to their children. Children born into wealth and inheritance grow up in wealthy neighborhoods. The people and children they are surrounded with while growing up are also from wealthy backgrounds. If the family in a wealthy neighborhood decides to send their child to a public school, they will be attending the same school as their wealthy neighbors.

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