When I was a little girl in the 1950s, my mother mistakenly believed she was an heiress. We lived modestly, but my mother’s father, Poppa Jack, had founded and built a successful company that manufactured high-school-athletic letter jackets. When his heart gave out suddenly at 56, an estate attorney informed my mother, her two sisters, and their younger brother (then all in their 20s) that their prosperous father had left substantial riches to be divided among them. The siblings—referred to in the family as “the kids” for the next 40 years—would get their “inheritance” at the expiration of a lifelong trust to support their mother, my Grandma Rose. With the piñata of a future fortune hanging out of reach, my mother, inheriting her father’s entrepreneurial spirit, opened a dress shop.
Financially comfortable, Grandma Rose married the estate attorney, Fred, and they lived happily into their ninth decades. The coat company for years churned out orders for leather-sleeved jackets in every combination of high-school colors. My step-grandfather, who generally kept a dignified veil over questions about Poppa’s estate, once told me the factory was intended mainly as a source of employment for family members. Indeed, copious cousins of questionable competence found jobs there. In the long run, dynastic socialism was bad for business. Poppa Jack’s well-intentioned legacy ran out of gas and into receivership just as his daughter became a grandmother herself.
For today’s mid-life matrons, inheriting wealth has gotten no easier. We came of age in the 1970s, and unlike many of our mothers, tossed aside paternalism to pursue intellectually satisfying careers. Feminists of my era started businesses, bought property, and invested in the market. We deciphered our own 401(k) plans. But gender independence notwithstanding, we accumulated less for retirement than men.
Now we middle-class, middle-aged women are, at times, struggling to afford our advancing maturity. Considering today’s sagging IRAs and deflated real estate values, frankly, a family bequest would be more than welcome right around now. We eschewed princess fantasies for personal accomplishments, but as we are eased out of the workforce, it would be nice to rely on the old man’s money.
“Intergenerational wealth transfer,” however, is no longer a significant portion of the retirement equation. Philanthropy, longevity, and serial marriages begetting multiple heirs have eroded patriarchal estates. For nonagenarian and octogenarian parents, a positive net worth is less imperative than a long-term care plan. Even when substantial holdings remain for heirs, their bestowal isn’t always benevolent.
Economists say there are four bequest motives: accidental, egoistic, strategic, or altruistic. People leave money to others because they are bighearted, manipulative, self-centered, or disorganized. Endowing a middle-aged offspring’s undercapitalized retirement is not on the list. As my contemporaries take, well, stock, I hear frequent tales of affluent fathers lacing their legacies with dissension, hurt feelings, or misunderstanding by passing on assets in an ungenerous or disorderly manner. Unsettlingly, their daughters find themselves unraveling wills, insurance policies, and asset preservation plans rather than simply mourning their parents.
In one case, two unmarried sisters of retirement age, an artist and a scientist, whom I’ve known and adored separately for decades, now maintain a chilly animosity toward each other. Their strong-willed father’s intricate but secretive financial deals kept him actively engaged until he died at 99. A complicated man, he told each daughter different secrets. While teams of accountants now painstakingly unravel his byzantine Bleak House financial portfolio, my friends communicate exclusively and contentiously through opposing probate attorneys.
Some progenitors can’t bear to part with their estates even in death. A woman from an illustrious family, whose originality and candor I’ve always admired, had to take her addled elderly father to court when he converted the combined fortunes of two distinguished bloodlines into a perpetual care vehicle for his garden.
Then there are legatees with warring agendas. A photographer friend and her sister have been united in disregard for their stepmother since their father died three years ago. Their own mother passed away when they were quite young. During the intervening years, the daughters frequently discussed the family weal with their dad, a real estate baron. The conversation continued after the sisters grew up and the magnate remarried. A cordial relationship among all, paired with prenuptial and financial agreements, reassured the daughters their legacy was secure. The conflicted father did leave his daughters abundant property, but, not so fast—his very healthy second wife can live in his mansion and off the other assets for the foreseeable future. In the meantime, the widow says the daughters should get lost. They can collect daddy’s money on the day she dies.
Without an inheritance in hand, my mother practiced independence. To others expecting a patrimony, I recommend the same. For our part, my husband and I have some investments, but our practical retirement plan is: Keep working. In six years we’ll be eligible for Medicare and our small portion of Social Security. Apart from that, the biggest bump in our financial future will be inheriting one-quarter ownership in my mother’s shag-carpeted condo.
Theoretically, a great fortune will go to the heirs of my boomer cohort. Economic models project that by the middle of this century, at least $41 trillion will transfer to estates and bequests for today’s infants and teenagers. Just to be safe, however, the kids should develop some skills.
I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that my husband and I won’t add much to the $41 trillion handoff. Not to shortchange our two kids, but they should not expect an inheritance from us. We instead direct them to self-reliant futures built on luck, determination, and enterprise. We’ve funded their educations and are glad to help, within reason, on housing. Our 20-year-old son in San Francisco, in his second year as a college sophomore, will inescapably be on our rent and tuition payroll for some time. Though I am confident he will one day be independent, he asked us recently, in all earnestness: “What is the deal with taxes and insurance?”
Our single daughter, 16 years ahead of her brother, is a NYC documentary filmmaker. A few years ago, we loaned her the down payment for her Chelsea co-op apartment. The loan will undoubtedly outlive the lenders as her mortgage endures, but the cozy fourth-floor walk-up forms the beginnings of her estate. What becomes of it from here is entirely up to her.