Inheritance in Germany “A factor that divides us”

Julia Friedrichs
Julia Friedrichs | Photo (detail): © Susanne Schleyer/autorenarchiv.de

Every year in Germany about 250 billion euros are inherited. In her book Wir Erben (i.e. We’re Inheriting) the young author Julia Friedrichs warns of a new unfairness.

Mrs Friedrichs, your book is subtitled “What money does to people”. Inherited wealth has affected your own circle of friends – in what way?

It has divided it, suddenly and unexpectedly. For a long time I had the impression that the question of what you could afford depended directly on what you earned. In their early thirties, many of my friends suddenly moved into expensive condos. When I asked them how they managed it, they said very little. The money came from an inheritance or an early bequest, a gift. All at once there was a factor that divided us: the money of our parents.

But a few bigger sitting rooms and comfortable south-facing balconies amongst your friends still hardly warrant a social debate.

Inheritance will be decisive for the question of who in our generation comes into money. It’s in this way that differences in wealth, which are already greater in Germany than in most other industrialized countries, are cemented. If the difference is too great, it will sooner or later result in social dislocations. It’s simply more difficult for the younger generation to acquire a fortune through their own work. Inheritances from parents offset this in the middle-class. They finance unpaid internships and rent-free flats – and so ensure that the children feel secure even if the labour market isn’t.

“Many heirs feel as if they’re paralyzed”

That sounds like a comfortable situation.

Not necessarily. Many of those who can count on gifts or an inheritance have the feeling that they must justify their life choices. Because their lives are partly paid for by the previous generation, they have the need to feel they haven’t made a mistake in their choice of jobs, of where they live or even of their partners. In the case of larger fortunes, heirs often even feel as if they’re paralyzed. The parents have achieved and earned a great deal and have very clear expectations of the children.

In your research you encountered again and again a wall of silence. There are hardly any numbers or facts about inheritance in Germany. Why is that?

The topic has been tabooed as far as possible; that’s typically German. In this country people talk only very reluctantly about money, and about inherited money not at all. It’s looked upon as something intimate, about which you don’t speak even with friends you otherwise share everything with. Even within the family the subject is seldom touched upon. Testators often don’t want to broach it because it has to do with their own deaths.

“Like an income they haven’t worked for”

In Germany there’s certainly a debate about a higher inheritance tax. Quite fundamentally, why may we take away more money from people whose forebears worked for it than from those who have worked for it themselves?

People can hold on to their money till they die, to put it quite bluntly. But then a change of ownership to the next generation takes place, for whom this inherited money is like receiving an income they haven’t worked for. Unlike Germany, other countries such as the UK therefore have a higher tax rate on inherited wealth.

Why in your opinion do we need a discussion about the “inheritance society” right now?

In the next decade alone three trillion euros could be inherited in Germany. We must talk about this now – soon the money will be re-distributed.