Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Inheritance in Australia: Family and Charitable Distributions from Personal Estates

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Inheritance in Australia: Family and Charitable Distributions from Personal Estates

Article excerpt


In the past few decades there has been more attention to the importance of charitable giving in Australia. This is understood sometimes in terms of the regeneration of social capital and civil society (Lyons et al. 2006); and sometimes in terms of the ascendancy of neoliberalism and its attack on government taxing and spending (Anheier & Leat 2006; Barraket 2008). Either way, there is an emergent body of research which addresses the structure of charitable distributions in Australia. This is exemplified in the 2005 Giving Australia report, commissioned by the Australian Government, which describes a 'growing proportion or rate of giving and increasing generosity in giving' in Australia (Giving Australia 2005: vii). Yet the report overwhelmingly addresses inter vivos giving, largely overlooking post mortem giving. This article redresses the gap in the research. It examines how Australians bequeath their estates, with particular attention to charitable giving. In doing so, it addresses post mortem giving on the basis of actual behaviours rather than reported intentions. It thereby provides a robust empirical foundation for debates around how charitable giving articulates with social capital, civil society and the role of government in advanced capitalist societies. It also provides the basis for more informed public policy on charitable giving, taxation, family provision and intestacy.

The article first discusses the literature around charitable giving and post mortem distributions. It then introduces the method employed in the current study; that is, a random survey of probate records in Victoria, Australia, in 2006. The findings and analysis distinguish between intestate decedents who did not make a will; 'first estates' where there is a surviving spouse; and 'final estates' where there is no surviving spouse. The discussion highlights the overwhelmingly familial organisation of post mortem distributions in Australia. Yet it also observes the persistent claims of testamentary freedom (the rights of testators to leave their estates as they choose) and charitable bequests, which qualify normative distributions of personal estates. In turn, this suggests that the tendency of Australians to leave their estates exclusively to their families and exclude charitable provision is contestable. Specifically, the prevailing norms in relation to family inheritance are not monolithic, and do not deny the potential for more decedents to leave more charitable bequests while still leaving the majority of their estates to their families.

Philanthropy and charitable giving

There are two long-standing traditions in the study of philanthropy and charitable giving in advanced capitalist societies. One tradition understands philanthropy and charitable giving in the context of class power in capitalist society. This tradition includes socialist and social democratic perspectives, and exercises a pervasive influence in the social sciences. From this perspective, philanthropy and charitable giving provide a vehicle for elite self-organisation; they provide residual relief at best from the damage of capitalist society; and they serve to legitimise existing social arrangements (Breeze 2006; Ostrander 1989; Ostrower 1995). Lyons and colleagues observe: 'Social science research in Australia has generally been a champion of progressive movements and giving, along with the reverse side of its coin, fundraising, was clearly a reactionary albeit fading presence in society'. As a result, social science has paid the 'scantest attention' to charitable giving (Lyons et al. 2006: 389). This tradition is routinely sceptical of the growing attention to charitable giving in Australia. Specifically, it is understood as the outcome of the neoliberal ascendancy, whereby private agencies are celebrated at the expense of government involvement (Connell 2004).

Another tradition understands inheritance and charitable giving in terms of civil society and social solidarity. …

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