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The Emerging Potential of Longitudinal Empirical Research in Estate Planning: Examples from Charitable Bequests

Russell N. James III

Vol. 53

June 2020

Page 2397

Traditionally, empirical analysis of estate planning has been limited to data from probate or estate tax records along with occasional one-time surveys of current plans or opinions. Additionally, the internet now allows easy access to online convenience samples of survey-takers. However, each of these sources has problematic features. Estate tax returns include only the wealthiest estates, and individual-level data is confidential. Probate data is time-consuming to access and includes information only for one specific location. Popular internet panels, although potentially useful for experiments, are not nationally representative.

Today, an important additional source of data, The Health and Retirement Study (“HRS”) is available. It provides high-quality, nationally representative, longitudinal information on participants’ estate planning. It not only tracks changes throughout the participants’ lives but also includes details of subsequent post-mortem transfers. Critically, this study, originating in 1992, has now accumulated a sufficient number of deceased participants (over 14,000) to permit sophisticated analyses of post-mortem wealth transfers. This Article reviews the advantages of HRS data for empirical research in estate planning and demonstrates the new types of analyses that are now possible. It does so by comprehensively outlining current knowledge regarding charitable bequests gleaned from both new and previous analyses of this data. By illustrating how much this data can illuminate one particular estate planning decision (charitable bequests), this Article is intended to spur those interested in the empirical analysis of estate planning to make further use of it.

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