How do inheritances shape wealth inequality? Theory and evidence from Sweden

This paper aims to measure and understand the role of inheritances in shaping wealth inequality. We use a quasi-experimental design and Swedish administrative data to document that the average heir depletes her inheritance within a decade while the inheritances of wealthy heirs remain intact. These different depletion rates are not due to different consumption or labor supply responses but due to different rates of return on inherited wealth. Upon their receipt, inheritances reduce relative measures of wealth inequality, such as top shares or percentile ratios. Theoretically, this reduction in inequality could be due to either a compressed inheritance distribution or similar chances of having wealthy parents (high intergenerational mobility). Empirically, the first force is more significant in Sweden. Within a decade, however, the effect is reversed: inheritances increase wealth inequality since the different depletion rates widen the inequality in inherited wealth over time. This implies that inheritance taxation can reduce long-run wealth inequality only through the taxation of wealthy heirs.

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