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Study Suggest Boomers' Inheritances May Not Live Up To Expectations

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A new analysis by AARP researchers contradicts projections by some experts of huge dollar transfers to boomers and other age groups through inheritances from parents.

For a boomer population increasingly fixated on financial security in retirement, the study’s findings could have important implications for estimating retirement needs.

As of 2004, the latest data available, 81% of boomers–those born between 1946 and 1964–had yet to receive an inheritance, according to the analysis of Federal Reserve figures by AARP’s Public Policy Institute.

Predictions of inheritance windfalls for baby boomers are overstated significantly, the study suggests. For instance, a widely quoted 1999 estimate by Boston College researchers projected boomers would inherit a total of $7 trillion.

According to the AARP’s Public Policy Institute estimate, however, the value of inheritances held by boomers as of 2004 totaled only $2.1 trillion.

Around 19% of boomers reported receiving at least one inheritance in 2004, up from 16% in a previous survey in 1989. Just 15% expected to receive an inheritance in the future, compared to 27% in the 1989 study.

AARP reports that 83% of boomers had living parents, compared with 98% of post-boomers and 22% of pre-boomers.

Boomers who had received inheritances by 2004 received a median of only $49,000, adjusted to 2005 dollars. Assuming the legacy had risen in value by 3% a year since it was initially inherited, the average value would have increased to $64,000, AARP estimates.

“Many of us dream of an inheritance in the same way we think about winning the lottery,” says John Gist, associate director of AARP’s Public Policy Institute. “The harsh reality is that for all but the lucky few, an inheritance is a pipedream.”

Without a substantial inheritance, boomers must look to Social Security, savings and pensions as the key to peace of mind in retirement, Gist adds.

AARP’s study, “In Their Dreams: What Will Boomers Inherit?” is based on Federal Reserve interviews with more than 4,500 families, which the Fed conducts every three years. AARP broke down the findings under boomers, pre-boomers (born before 1946) and post-boomers (born after 1964).

As of 1994, 8.6% of boomers reported inheritances of up to $50,000 while 3.1% received between $50,000 and $100,000, and 7.5% received more than $100,000.

Boomer families in the bottom 40% of net worth will inherit just under 20% of total inheritance dollars, while those in the top 40% will receive over 60%, AARP projects.

Because only the most affluent are likely to receive significant inheritances, “in general, inheritances are not likely to rescue most boomers if they have failed to prepare for retirement on their own,” AARP notes.