Historical Social Research

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Merlin Schaeffer: The Social Meaning of Inherited Financial Assets. Moral Ambivalences of Intergenerational Transfers [Abstract]

What do inherited financial assets signify to heirs and testators and how does this shape their conduct? Based on grounded theory methodology and twenty open, thematically structured interviews with US heirs, future heirs and testators, this article explicates a theoretical account that proposes a moral ambivalence as the core category to understand the social meaning of inherited financial assets. In particular, the analysis reveals that the social meaning of inherited assets is a contingent, individual compromise between seeing inherited assets as unachieved wealth and seeing them as family means of support. Being the lifetime achievement of another person, inheritances are, on the one hand, morally dubious and thus difficult to appropriate. Yet in terms of family solidarity, inheritances are "family money," which is used when need arises. Taken from this angle, inheriting is not the transfer of one individual's privately held property to another person, but rather the succession of the social status as support-giver along with the resources that belong to this status to the family's next generation. Heirs need to find a personal compromise between these poles, which always leaves room for interpretation.

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