Wills: Personal plans for reducing inequality

Illustration of a person in three different stages of life, surrounded by decreasing amounts of money
Jericho Tang/Staff

Related Posts

Now is the time for difficult conversations about death. More specifically, now is the time to talk with loved ones about your respective wills.

Few people like discussing the inevitable fate of their loved ones, but pandemics push the topic to the center of every dinner table. It’s a conversation most of us need to have — only 4 in 10 American adults have a will or living trust.

Absent a will, the fees associated with sorting through an estate with the aid of a lawyer and court can come to 5% of the estate’s total value. The already painful process of mourning a loved one is amplified by the complex and costly probate process for allocating their estate.

This is a conversation that is perhaps most important for millennials and baby boomers. The latter are nearing the moment when they will pass on $68 trillion to younger generations — especially their progeny, the “echo boomers,” aka millennials. For millennials looking to upend “the system,” their most meaningful contribution to correcting the inequality that’s rendered the American Dream a nonstarter for millions may come at a surprising, difficult time: the death of their boomer parents and grandparents.

However, a will that simply passes wealth from one generation to the next is unaligned with how millennials view the world. Turns out, 22% of young Americans list income inequality or distribution of wealth as the top issue facing society.

But the traditional way of addressing this issue — good old public policy — isn’t available. One of the key mechanisms for preventing wealth from remaining in the hands of the “haves” — the inheritance tax — has lost whatever support it once enjoyed. 

Back in 2001, all 50 states had an inheritance or estate tax. By 2018, largely due to federal tax changes, just 17 states had such laws left in place (in case you were wondering, California is among those without an inheritance tax).

In the absence of a public policy remedy to addressing inheritance-induced inequality, those concerned with the United States’ income inequality should take it upon themselves to actualize the change they claim to support. Believe it or not, this will-by-will approach to income inequality could actually lead to a lot of change. For instance, some Americans are already doing their part: Charitable gifts made through estate plans jumped to $35.7 billion in 2017, an increase of 2.3% from the prior year.

What’s more, millennials don’t have to embark on this endeavor alone. After all, it’s not just millennials who see that some Americans are getting an unfair head start. Nearly two-thirds of Americans attribute an individual’s wealth to them having had “more advantages in life than most other people,” instead of that person working harder than others. It’s no secret that one advantage of receiving an inheritance is that it can buoy you through crises just like COVID-19.

Leveling the playing field and reviving the American Dream will not come through legislation. It comes as no surprise that voters have generally avoided supporting “death taxes” — a common moniker given to efforts to increase or create inheritance taxes. Using wills to level the playing field in the United States requires creating a new spin on end-of-life planning.

We need a cultural shift toward a more egalitarian society. In this society, far more individuals would be able to weather turbulent times such as pandemics. Savings, emergency supplies and job security would be far less likely to be confined to the wealthy. The creation of wills that prioritize charities and causes advancing such outcomes is an imperative step in this larger shift.

This shift will help us correct for the fact that the American Dream has become the American Gene — that your station and trajectory in life is highly correlated with the station of your parents. By dispersing inheritances to more individuals, we can break down the tight tie between where your parents ended and where you’ll likely end up.

It’s important to note that creating a will is easier than ever. Take it from an aspiring lawyer: You don’t need one to write a will that is sufficient to ensure you’re reducing inequality rather than passing on privilege. According to the general counsel at LegalZoom, most folks don’t need to hire an expensive lawyer to complete their will. For those without complex and varied assets, sites such as Rocket Lawyer and FreeWill can do the trick for relatively affordable rates.

So we should instead think about wills as political statements — expressions of refusal to allow future generations to live in such a lopsided society. Such expressions have become more and more frequent in the wake of COVID-19, as people donate their stimulus checks and up their philanthropy. Now is the time to take that energy to the next level and write it down in a will that prioritizes decreasing inequality over increasing familial wealth. Individual choices can have community wide impacts and, in the case of wills, those impacts can span generations.

Kevin Frazier is a student at the UC Berkeley School of Law and the founder of Neighbors for Nonprofits.