In the next several decades, this country is expected to experience one of the greatest transfers of wealth from one generation to the next that has ever taken place anywhere.
Estimates of how much money people will leave behind run as high as $150 trillion, but a more widely used number is $41 trillion. Of that, a number of economists think $25 trillion will be transferred directly to heirs. And much of it will be left to members of the baby-boom generation.
That vast sea of money may solve a lot of boomers' financial problems -- studies suggest that many are counting on it, perhaps unrealistically -- or it may not. But it does seem to give the older generation a lot of leverage and it is having a powerful impact on family dynamics.
In a survey by the big German insurance and financial services firm Allianz Group, several thousand U.S. boomers and their elders were asked how they think about themselves and the other generation, and what they expect to inherit. The survey found an interesting mix of pressure and neglect infecting intergenerational communication.
Large majorities of both generations said they were "highly confident" discussing legacy and inheritance, but when they were questioned more deeply, fewer than a third of both generations said they had talked about any of the issues that Allianz experts deemed essential in legacy planning.
Those key issues are: values and life lessons; instructions and wishes to be fulfilled; personal possessions of emotional value; and financial assets or real estate.
A fifth of boomers admitted they hadn't discussed any of those matters with their elders, and the survey data, along with focus groups, suggested that both boomers and their parents want to talk about more than the money.
"The big 'aha' is that it's more about this concept of 'legacy' than inheritance," said Mark A. Zesbaugh, chief executive of Allianz Life Insurance Co. of North America. Both generations, when asked about inheritance, spoke narrowly of money and death. "The word 'legacy' opened up floodgates of communication," he said.
If families can use that approach to improve communications, they may find it of great value. A failure to communicate can be costly on many fronts.
Despite Republican efforts, the estate tax is still very much alive, but it also is full of provisions that can be exploited by careful families to save a lot of money upon the death of a parent.
Further, estate-planning experts almost universally note that personal possessions and other items whose monetary value is modest at best are often the source of the bitterest family squabbles. Family members owe it to one another to decide who gets what while the elders are still around to make their wishes clear -- or to referee disagreements among their children.
Ken Dychtwald, head of Age Wave, a consulting firm involved in the study, said it found that "families were five times more likely to fight over who got Grandma's ring" than who got the money.
Another theme the survey turned up is what Allianz called "performance- based inheriting." That means getting a bigger legacy for doing what the parents want. A majority of boomers and parents -- though the parent majority is somewhat larger -- agree that a child deserves more if he or she has taken care of a parent. About a fifth say children with greater financial need should get more; slightly more of baby boomers agree.
Lesser numbers, though with more parents agreeing than boomers, agree that a bigger inheritance ought to go with agreeing with parents' values and beliefs, with having more dependents, and with being more financially responsible.
Finally, 34 percent of elders "feel making decisions about inheritance is an important source of power and control," but only 15 percent of boomers "feel their parents use their inheritance plans to exert control over heirs." Not many elders would disinherit a child, but the number of those who would rises among wealthier parents.
About two in five elders with more than one child say they have an "alpha child" who will "initiate and guide conversations on legacy planning," the survey found. Almost as many boomers say that's true, and that they are the alpha children. However, the survey found those boomers are being wildly optimistic -- they are four times more likely to think they are the alpha than their parents are.
At the same time, the survey said that "while the alpha child has a high level of comfort" discussing inheritance questions, "they are no more likely to know the monetary value of their parents' estate than their brothers or sisters."
The survey also found that boomers regard the memory of their parents and their parents' values as the most important features of a legacy. Only 10 percent of boomers say inheriting financial assets or real estate is a priority.
That difference might in part be attributed to boomers' interpreting researchers' questions about values vs. money as boiling down to "are you a loving child or a salivating legatee?" and giving the answer that sounded better. But Zesbaugh and Dychtwald both said the focus groups and other supporting research convinced them that the results reflected a real sentiment.
If that is true, it further underlines family communication problems, because about 40 percent of the elders said passing on financial assets or real estate is a priority, and more than a third regard leaving an inheritance as "an obligation."
Whatever the reality of that, the lesson from this survey overall remains that nonfinancial aspects of late-life planning are at least as important as the financial details, and that discussing, explaining and making sure that everyone in the family understands what happens when the older generation dies is a necessary process.
Parents should make their wishes clear to their children ahead of time. Most parents have done so in terms of values and goals throughout their children's lives, but specific wishes, along with explanations of will provisions and other specific directives, should be laid out in advance. That leaves time for negotiation and reconciliation.
On conveying values, "there is a sense that these things go on throughout their life," Dychtwald said. But in the end, "it's not a matter of 'tell me from scratch,' but a sense that these dimensions of our relationship at the end of the day may be more important than a thousand dollars here or $100,000 there."
The Internal Revenue Service said last week it that intends to audit 5,000 so-called Subchapter S corporations, which are business entities that do not pay taxes but pass profits and losses along to shareholders, who report them on their own returns.
The audits are part of the IRS's National Research Program, which is aimed at finding out where taxpayers are burying the bodies these days. The last time the agency did a big round of research audits was in 1988, and things have changed a lot since then.
S-corps, as they are known colloquially, are now the most common form of corporation, accounting for 59 percent of corporate returns in 2002. The number of S corporations has risen from 724,749 in 1985 to 3,154,377 in 2002. The growth rate has been even faster among those with more than $10 million in assets. From 1985 to 2002, the number of such larger S-corps rose to 26,096 from 2,305, the IRS said.