How much will you inherit?
A record $45 trillion is being handed down - but not everyone gets a share.
by Eugenia Levenson, FORTUNE Magazine

(FORTUNE Magazine) - Coming into money has never gone out of fashion. Just page through the novels of Austen or Dickens or Wharton to see how inheritance shaped social destiny. Fast-forward to 2006, and inheritance is as heated a topic as ever. (Witness the Murdoch family or Anna Nicole Smith.) The largest intergenerational transfer of wealth ever is now underway, measuring $45 trillion (the low estimate from the Center on Wealth and Philanthropy at Boston College). And many boomers are wondering if a windfall from their parents - the generation whose Depression-inspired frugality collided so spectacularly with post-World War II economic opportunity - lies ahead.

The big score

Enough to provide $7,000 for every man, woman, and child on earth (or build 13 stacks of dollar bills to the moon), the $45 trillion will be transferred over a 55-year period ending in 2052. About a third of the funds will pass to boomers; the rest will flow mainly to their kids.

Vultures are lurking

Heirs aren't the only ones with their eye on the $45 trillion prize. Uncle Sam, as well as state governments, will eat a huge chunk in estate taxes (these estimates assume no future rule changes). Wall Street is salivating at the prospect of aiding wealth transfer - and harvesting fees. Charities will also reap a significant share, presaging a new, flusher future for nonprofits. All told, this trio will end up with more than a third of the pie.

Unequal weights

The rich will get richer: Nearly half the money will come from the wealthiest 7% of estates. The average total bequest from this gilded group: $2 million. That's almost 12 times the average sum, $168,000, going to heirs of the remaining 93% of estates. Six percent of estates will leave heirs nothing.

Source: Center on Wealth and Philanthropy at Boston College

Timing is everything

Younger boomers may be better off than older ones. A 2002 study (based on surveys asking parents what they planned to bequeath) calculated how likely - and how much - heirs are to inherit based on their parents' birth year. Find your odds (or your spouse's or your friend's) below.

Say it ain't so!

The biggest windfalls will go largely to those who already have the highest net worth. While boomers as a group will receive much more than their parents did, the relative value of bequests at all income levels--considering what boomers need and what they've already saved - will look a lot like what Mom and Dad got from their parents.

How it stacks up

National debt -- $8.4 trillion

U.S. GDP 2005 -- $12.5 trillion

World GDP 2004 in U.S. dollars -- $41.3 trillion

Intergenerational transfer of wealth from 1998 to 2052 -- $45 trillion

Total value of shares trading on world's stock exchanges 2005 -- $51 trillion Top of page