Why Parents Play Favorites: Explanations for Unequal Bequests

Audrey Light, Kathleen McGarry

NBER Working Paper No. 9745
Issued in June 2003
NBER Program(s):   AG

Economists have invested a great deal of effort in trying to understand the motivation for family transfers, yet recent empirical work testing the seemingly appealing models of altruism and exchange has led to decidedly mixed results. A major stumbling block has been the lack of adequate data. We take a fresh look at the issue using responses to an innovative survey question that directly asks mother about the planned division of their estates. We find that both altruism and exchange are frequently offered as explanations of behavior and are of nearly equal importance. Furthermore, the explanations are consistent with observable characteristics of the mother, lending support to the validity of the question. We also find that among step or adopted families, genetic ties play an important role. Because motivating factors appear to differ across families the lack of a consensus among previous researchers about motives ought not to be surprising.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w9745

Published: Light, Audrey and Kathleen McGarry. "Why Parents Play Favorites: Explanations For Unequal Bequests," American Economic Review, 2004, v94(5,Dec), 1669-1681. citation courtesy of

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