Making Things Fair: An Empirical Study of How People Approach the Wealth Transmission System
Naomi Cahn and Amy Ziettlow, Elder Law Journal, vol. 22 no. 325, 2015, Elder Law Journal, 1/15/2015
The wealth transmission process is of great concern to many senior citizens in the United States. The American wealth transmission process is designed to respect private ordering. It encourages planning as a means to formalize intent and ensure smoother property transfer at death. Most people do not plan, nor do they use, the formal probate system for distributing property, but there is little research on what the actual wealth transfer process looks like for the majority of Americans. This article challenges the contemporary trusts and estates canon by showing that the nuts and bolts of the inheritance process for many Americans takes place in a different universe outside of probate court, where the black-letter law is only a shadow, keepsakes and heirlooms assume outsized importance, and family dynamics drive outcomes. It is based on a first-ever empirical study of intergenerational care for Baby Boomers. This study shows that the formal laws of the inheritance system are largely irrelevant to how property is actually transferred at death. The contemporary trusts and estates canon focuses on the importance of planning for traditional forms of wealth in nuclear families, rather than wealth that has high emotional, but low financial, value. Alternative family structures and changing forms of wealth challenge this canon, uncovering serious shortcomings in existing means designed to encourage planning and minimize conflict. Instead, this study shows how the logic of "making things fair" has been structuring the way families navigated the distribution process and accessed the law. Consequently, this article recommends that law reform should be guided by the needs of contemporary families, where not only is wealth defined broadly but family too, through ties that are both formal and functional. This means establishing default rules that maximize planning while also protecting familial relationships.