Inheritance and Social Responsibility

by George Salzman

When my mother died in 1995 I received, after taxes, about $300 thousand, in stocks. By that time I was bitterly opposed to the endless wars engaged in by the U.S. and its surrogates, and I tried to insure that as little of “my” money went to the government as I could manage. However, I believed that I had not earned the inheritance, and therefore planned to give one-third to each of our two daughters (my wife had died in 1981), in yearly non-taxable gifts.

I used my share — about $100 thousand — along with my income, to a) contribute to mainly 501(c)3 tax-exempt socially constructive groups and b) to gradually invest in restoring and maintaining the duplex house in Cambridge, Mass., which I used as a business, a rental property 5/6 occupied by my housemates and 1/6 by myself. An old frame house built before 1840, it needed a lot of work. With costs exceeding rents, that reduced my “adjusted gross income”.

Over the course of some years, with tax-exempt contributions and rental losses, I was able, in the short term, to divert substantial money from the IRS.

As for the longer term, I began to think about what would happen to “my estate” when I died. In January 1997 I wrote,

Only a small percentage of the world’s people have the luxury of living far enough from the brink that every bit of money need not go for day-to-day survival. For those of us so privileged, the tension generated by the question, “What to do with the money?” comes from our insecurity about our future. Our fears are constantly fed by our knowledge of what happens to the very poor without food or homes, to those with major health afflictions lacking medical care, to the infirm aged warehoused unto death. We are urged to protect our individual selves by saving, by insurance, by investing. Banking conglomerates, giant insurance companies, mammoth brokerage empires and the legal sharks who advise them how to swindle legally – the big-money business – they all feast on our insecurities.

In truth, there is no escaping our fears within the existing institutional framework. Without real community there is no real social security. One of capitalism’s outstanding achievements in its relentless drive to maximize profits has been its success in destroying real communities. Even extended families are disappearing as young people are forced to leave in search of jobs.

It seems to me impossible to contribute significant money support to grassroots efforts as long as the fear of insecurity has us in its grip. For me, it is more important to try to make the world better for my children and grandchildren – and for all children – than to try to secure, as much as one can with money, my own long term life and comfort. So I have decided not to try to save, not to try to prepare for prolonged medical care, and to come to terms with my own mortality. This has enabled me to contribute large (for me) amounts of money each year, last year to 132 different groups, most of them tax-exempt.*

Because I saw the U.S. government, large corporations and giant capitalism as inextricable parts of the destructive system of capitalism, I wanted to insure not only that the IRS not get money from me, but that all “my” estate be kept out of the market and out of the hands of real estate brokers, lawyers, probate courts, accountants, speculators, and all the money sharks of the corrupt corporate culture. This went beyond “just” war tax resistance.

In the two and a half years from early 1997 until the Fall of 1999 I looked into how to have “my” estate safeguarded for socially constructive ends when I died. I talked with many friends, neighbors and prospective trustees, the benefactors-to-be, about what to do with the property. That’s how I came to set up the small trust in Cambridge, [discussed in the essay, “The Local Grassroots Infrastructure Trust: a part of the global grass-roots infrastructure.”]

For those who own or come to inherit a house, it’s possible to set up a trust in which, although on your death control of the property goes at once to the trustees, as long as you are alive and legally competent you retain what is called “a life estate.” If you are willing to share the house with others you thus have the possibility of some income from the property, if you need it.

In our society people who are extremely wealthy, like the Fortune 500, are not coy about their “great generosity”. So we hear about the billions Gates and Soros give away. But among people with far lesser incomes it is often regarded as in poor taste to discuss how you dispose of, or even to reveal, your income. And your accumulated wealth, if any, is usually “nobody else’s business.”

I think this kind of “secrecy” or “privacy” does not serve any legitimate purpose and we ought to work to change the culture. In my opinion the greatest source of injustice in the world comes basically from the extreme differences in economic resources. I think we must try to eliminate those differences, and so we need to know what they are.

* That was part of a little essay I wrote, “Renewing the Call to RESIST” to commemorate RESIST’s 30th anniversary.