Patterns of Inheritance

Inheritance patterns have long been studied in various fields, including sociology, psychology, and economics. From an evolutionary psychology perspective, the distribution of wealth in inheritance can be predicted based on inclusive fitness theory, which posits that individuals are more likely to allocate resources to genetically related kin and those with higher reproductive value.

What are Patterns of Inheritance?

Patterns of inheritance refer to how individuals distribute their wealth or resources to their heirs after their death. Inheritance patterns can vary widely depending on cultural, social, and economic factors, individual preferences and beliefs. In many societies, inheritance is governed by legal codes that specify how assets are to be distributed among heirs, but some informal norms and customs influence inheritance patterns.

Inheritance Patterns

Primogeniture, where the oldest son receives the entire family fortune, is a typical inheritance pattern. This custom has been prevalent in many European nations for years and is still followed in some locales today. Younger brothers are usually given smaller inheritances or are completely disinherited in a primogeniture system. This inheritance pattern can strengthen societal hierarchies based on gender and birth sequence, resulting in substantial wealth gaps between relatives.

Another typical inheritance pattern is partible inheritance, in which the estate is divided equally among all heirs. His pattern is often found in societies with a more egalitarian view of inheritance which can help reduce wealth inequality within families. However, it can also create challenges in managing the distribution of assets, especially if there are many heirs or if the estate is not easily divisible.

In some cultures, inheritance is based on matrilineal kinship, in which property is passed down through the mother's family line. Some African and Native American societies, among others, use this inheritance system. Due to their influence over the family's money, women frequently hold significant economic and societal power in matrilineal cultures.

In comparison, the father's household determines inheritance in patrilineal cultures. The majority of Middle Eastern, Asian, and European societies share this pattern of transmission. Men frequently hold more economic and societal influence in patrilineal societies because they are expected to be the primary feeders and support their families.

In many contemporary cultures, inheritance is controlled by legal systems that control money transfers. These frameworks frequently have rules for probate, which is the court procedure used to divide a decedent's possessions. Additionally, they might have clauses relating to foundations and other financial tools that can help control how money is distributed over time. An extension of this legal system is the pattern of passing a 'Will'. This 'Legal Will' entails the wishful heir of the wealth decided by the estate's owner.

Types of Inheritance

Inheritance can be broadly categorized into two types: intestate and testate inheritance.

Intestate Inheritance

It refers to the distribution of assets and property when the deceased person does not have a valid will or trust in place. In this case, the distribution of the assets is determined by state law, which outlines the specific order in which surviving family members are entitled to inherit the assets. This order is generally based on the degree of kinship, with spouses and children typically receiving priority over other relatives.

Testate Inheritance

It refers to the distribution of assets and property when the deceased person has a valid will or trust in place at the time of their death. In this case, the distribution of assets is determined by the instructions laid out in the will or trust, which can specify how assets are to be distributed among beneficiaries, as well as designate guardians for minor children or establish trusts for the long-term management of assets. Several types of testate inheritance exist, including specific bequests, general bequests, and residuary bequests. Specific bequests are gifts of specific items or amounts of money, while general bequests are gifts of a certain percentage or amount of real estate. On the other hand, residuary bequests are gifts of whatever is left over after specific and general bequests have been made.

Relationship between Inheritances and Income/Wealth Levels

The relationship between inheritances and income/wealth levels is not straightforward and has some nuances. The following are a few points that can be considered −

  • Inheritances are more prevalent and of higher value for individuals with higher economic resources than those with lower resources. As a result, inheritances have increased absolute differences in income and wealth.

  • However, inheritances are distributed more evenly across the current income and wealth distributions than income and wealth. In addition, those with the lowest incomes have a higher share of inheritances as a percentage of their income, whether measured at the time of inheritance or over their lifetime.

  • Nevertheless, the wealth-spreading effect of inheritances does not reach most of those with low economic resources, as it is primarily a minority of low-resource households that receive large sums in inheritances.

  • The effects of inheritances on relative inequality levels are complex due to the above factors and any behavioural responses to expecting or receiving an inheritance that the evidence presented here does not capture. Overall, it can be concluded that inheritances have had a negligible or slightly inequality-increasing effect on wealth and lifetime incomes.

Gender Differences in Spousal Resource Allocation

One study found that women tended to distribute their estates among a more significant number of beneficiaries than men did. Conversely, men often left their entire estates to their wives with the expectation that they would provide for their children's education and start in life. Men expressed confidence in their wives' ability to handle the estate to advantage better and provide for their children as they would have. However, women who were married at the time of their death did not exhibit the same level of trust in their husbands.

Some women excluded their husbands entirely from their wills or put conditions on their inheritance, potentially reflecting concerns about their husbands' misconduct or abandonment. One possible explanation for this gender difference is that older men are more likely than older women to remarry, potentially diverting resources from their previous family to attract a new mate and start a new family.

In contrast, older women are less likely to remarry and have additional children, making it more likely that they will allocate resources toward their mutual children with their current husbands. However, this explanation is speculative and requires further research to be validated.

Influence of Culture on Inheritance Pattern

Research conducted in various cultures worldwide has found that cultural and social factors can influence inheritance patterns. For example, a study conducted in Taiwan found that inheritance patterns were influenced by gender roles, where daughters of the household were more likely to inherit movable property (such as jewellery).

At the same time, sons were more likely to inherit immovable property (such as land). This finding suggests that cultural and social factors can also impact inheritance patterns, even in societies where genetic relatedness is an important consideration.

Assumptions of Inheritance Patterns

The psychologist Smith, Kish, and Crawford (1987) investigated three assumptions about inheritance patterns based on theories about the evolved psychological processes underpinning resource allocation, guided by the inclusive fitness theory.

  • People will leave more of their estates to genetically related kin and spouses than to unrelated people. It is not because they are genetically connected but because the partner is assumed to share the resources with their offspring and grandkids; spouses are included in the forecast.

  • People will leave more of their estates to close kin than distantly related kin.

  • People will leave more of their estates to offspring than siblings, even though the average genetic relatedness is the same in these two types of relationships.

Researchers further looked at the group of 1,000 randomly chosen decedents from the Vancouver area of Canada—552 males and 448 women—to verify these predictions. The group only contained people who left wills. Beneficiaries were classified as sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, grandchildren, nieces, or cousins based on how closely they were genetically connected to the deceased person. Spouse and nonfamily relationships fall into the two non-genetic connection groups. Organizations were included in the final group.

Results came outstanding; the initial forecast came true. On average, people gave 92.3 percent of their estates to partners or family members and only 7.7 percent to nonrelatives. The second forecast also came true as more of the estates of the deceased were entrusted to near-genetic relations than to the more remote ones. Considering only the amount left to kin (excluding the categories of spouse and non-kin), people left only 46 percent of their estates among relatives sharing 50 percent of their genes, 8 percent among relatives sharing 25 percent of their genes, and less than 1 percent among relatives sharing only 12.5 percent of their genes.

The third prediction—that individuals would leave more to their children than to their siblings—was also realized. Individuals left their offspring more than four times as much (38.6% of the overall estate) than their relatives. (7.9 percent of the estate). These findings are consistent with the theory that selection has shaped the psychological processes of resource distribution that benefit people in proportion to their genetic similarity.


Inheritance patterns are becoming increasingly significant in shaping the distribution of wealth within and across generations, leading to potential consequences for social mobility and economic growth. Unequal inheritance can provide advantages to some individuals while disadvantaging others, leading to a concentration of economic and political power that can undermine social cohesion.

Policymakers may need to consider reforms to inheritance laws or tax policies to promote more excellent economic opportunity and social mobility while maintaining a fair and equitable distribution of resources.

Updated on: 12-Apr-2023


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