Great wealth transfer raises the inheritance stakes

After decades of building up wealth, baby boomers are handing down trillions in gifts and inheritance in a massive transfer of wealth from one generation to the next.

The underlying principles of divvying up money, property and other assets remain more or less the same under what's being called the "great wealth transfer", according to legal professionals.

But given the scale of wealth accumulated by the baby boomer generation, the stakes are now higher.

Safewill Legal principal solicitor Isabelle Marcarian said larger pools of wealth had injected more complexity into estate planning and, unfortunately, heightened the chance of a fight breaking out.

In the past, a child cut out of a will, for example, may not have challenged it because the legal fees may have outweighed the benefit.

"But now, with even one house being worth a few million dollars, say in Sydney, it's worth fighting about it," Ms Marcarian told AAP.

And the more money in play, she added, the bigger the tax benefit of carefully-structured estate planning.

In 2018/19, the average inheritance was $125,000 and 50 was the typical age of a recipient, according to Productivity Commission research from a few years ago.

With forced retirement saving, longer careers and rising property values, personal wealth has been growing and the commission expects inheritances and gifts to lift in parallel, with the $120 billion total passed on in 2018 already double that of 2002.

A piggy bank and cash.
With forced retirement saving, longer careers and rising property values, personal wealth has grown. (Steven Saphore/AAP PHOTOS)

Australia's over-60s are expected to transfer around $3.5 trillion of their wealth to younger generations in the next 20 years, or an average of about $175 billion per year.

At its core, estate planning is about planning for death or incapacity and transitioning assets like property or shares to beneficiaries, such as children, partners or others.

It typically starts with a will, which spells out who is getting what, how and when those assets should be distributed, and who is controlling the process.

Ms Marcarian said it was important to normalise the practice of estate planning early on - letting family members know a will has been written, who are beneficiaries, who is the executor, and other basic information.

"It's important to have that discussion... what if the will gets lost and your kids never knew you did it or to look for it?" she sad.

Where possible, she recommended being upfront about uneven asset distribution - such as leaving more to a child with much lower income than their siblings - to explain the rationale and head off any tension.

"It's always better to have that conversation nicely while everyone's around," she said.

Yet where relationships were unstable, an upfront conversation could pose a greater risk to someone's estate.

In the case of a younger beneficiary, there was the option of staggering inheritance to ensure it was used wisely and not squandered.

Rather than handing $1 million to an 18-year-old, for example, they might get $100,000 initially, $200,000 at 20 and the rest at 25, with the expectation financial skills improve with time and maturity.

Testamentary trusts, which sit inside the will and effectively come into existence once someone passes away, have a number of benefits, including lowering the overall tax burden by allowing income to be split between beneficiaries.

For example, say there was $50,000 of income to be released from the trust in a year, $20,000 each might go to adult grandchildren working part-time so are in lower tax brackets than, say, a child working full-time, who might get $10,000 that year.

Testamentary trusts can also be used to safeguard inheritance from creditors, divorce settlements, and the poor financial decisions of beneficiaries.