Wills and Inherited Wealth

Did you know that as much as 80% of family wealth in the United States comes from inherited wealth? That is the conclusion Carole Shammas, Marylynn Salmon and Michael Dahlin (1997) reached in their book Inheritance in America, published by Rutgers University Press. Family wealth can be passed on either before or after parents’ or grandparents’ deaths. Barbara Robles, Betsy Leondar-Wright, Rose Brewer, Rebecca Adamson, and Meizhu Lui (2006) elaborate on what they refer to as “family financial aid” in their book The Color of Wealth, published by the New Press. Family financial aid consists of help offered to younger generations in major expenses such as college tuition or buying a house.

In my own family, while I knew my grandparents had helped to pay for my college education, for a long time I hadn’t thought about transfer of wealth from one generation to the next, or what that transfer might mean for perpetuating race and class stratification. I grew up hearing that my ancestors had pulled themselves up from poverty – or least very modest circumstances – by their own hard work. Without discounting their work, however, I began to look into who inherited wealth from whom. In the blog on Property Records, I offer guidance in tracing property. Here, I focus on tracing what happens to that property when a person dies.

It turns out that locating wills is much easier than I had thought it would be because wills that have been filed for probate are public records. Generally in the U.S., a will is filed in the courthouse of the county where the person was living at the time of death, although it may be filed in another county where the person owned property. To see a will, the easiest thing to do is simply to go to the county courthouse and ask to see a copy of it. You don’t have to explain who you are or why you are asking, since wills in probate are public records. You may be escorted to a “Will and Probate Room,” or you may be taken to a room of microfiche. The documents you view may be hand written, typed, or transcribed into a database. I’ve personally encountered them in all of these forms. Below is an example of a typed will from 1902.

1902 Will

Example of a 1902 will

You can also write to the appropriate county courthouse for a copy of a will. You’ll need to pay a copying fee; I recommend visiting the county courthouse website or calling for information first. You may be able to locate the name of an ancestor online through the county courthouse, although you’ll still need to write, call, fax, or email to get a copy of the will. You may also be able to find information on a family history website such as ancestry.com, although it’s well to be aware than not all wills that exist have been entered into online databases.

Wills that were written but not filed for probate are not public records; only named beneficiaries can see such documents.

One thing wills will clue you into rather quickly is the status of women in the time period and location where the family lived. Some of my ancestors, for example, divided their assets equally among their children (and in some cases their grandchildren), while others transferred to the bulk of their assets to male heirs. You can follow up on what you find by looking into women and property rights

Critical Theory and Critical Race Theory (CRT) offer perspectives for analyzing the relationship between inherited wealth and the perpetuation of disparities of race and class. CRT, for example, examines how, through the commodification of land and people for profit, Whites established the basis for Whiteness as property, which maintains White economic supremacy through inheritance. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2004, the median net wealth of White non-Hispanic families was $113,822, of Black families just $8,650; of Hispanic families, $13,375; and of Asian families, $107,690 (data on Asian families lump together widely varying ethnic groups that include very wealthy immigrants). Note that the median White family’s wealth was 13 times that of the median Black family, and 8.5 times that of the median Hispanic family. How much of that disparity is maintained by inheritance?

You don’t have to come from a wealthy family to make use of wills as a tool to examine how wealth stays within families across the generations. To reiterate, wills are public information. To see a will that has gone through probate, all you need is a deceased person’s name, and the name of the county where the person was living at the time of death.

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