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Swiss prosper from high inheritances

The over-fifties profit most from inheritances. imagepoint

The Swiss inherit more than their European neighbours – with the average legacy being around half a million francs, according to a study.

This content was published on May 12, 2006 - 22:03

But the research, the first of its kind in Switzerland, by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) found that most fortunes are bequeathed to those who need them least – the over-fifties.

In all, SFr28.5 billion ($23.2 billion) - 6.8 per cent of Gross Domestic Product - is left to people annually in Switzerland.

Financial gifts worth one quarter to one third of this sum are also handed down each year, found the study.

Initial results also revealed that in 2000 the average Swiss inheritance was worth SFr456,000.

Although most legacies are divided up, a Swiss heritor still receives an average of SFr187,700 – more than they might build up over a lifetime.

These figures are "considerably higher" than in European neighbours Germany, France and Britain, where similar research has been carried out, explained the report's co-author Heidi Stutz.

She added that the high amounts bequeathed in Switzerland were due to its prosperity, the high value of property and the fact that individual fortunes survived relatively unscathed after the Second World War.

Getting older

Another point that emerged from the study was that both bequeathers and inheritors were getting older as a result of increased life expectancy. As a result, the over-fifties were the ones who profited the most from inheritances.

Almost one-third of all estates are passed on to senior citizens, with people over 80 inheriting eight per cent of the total assets.

In 1980 half of all legacies went to people under 50, whereas today the figure stands at only one third.

"The percentage inherited by young people will continue to fall to 20 per cent by 2020," explained Stutz.

According to the authors, this means that most people are left money when they need it least – after their children have gone to school and they have paid off their mortgage – resulting in a concentration of wealth among those of pensionable age.

"The idea that you might still need any money you have saved up for your retirement is an ingrained one," Stutz told swissinfo.

Half of those who retire in Switzerland have saved up at least SFr250,000. In Zurich one in five retired couples pays tax on more than SFr1 million.

The authors say that the study's findings raise other questions - such as whether young wage earners should continue to pay the state pensions of millionaire retirees, or whether the cantons could phase out inheritance tax but continue to tax people in employment.

Reforms

Over the past few years calls have been growing for a national inheritance tax.

But parliament and the public have rejected reforms, despite a recent International Monetary Fund (IMF) report recommending that countries with growing numbers of senior citizens should consider replacing income tax with inheritance tax to relieve the strain on those in employment.

The SNSF's findings also paint a picture of imbalance in inheritances in Switzerland.

In all, almost two thirds of legacies are passed on to children.

However, five per cent of inheritors receive 60 per cent of the overall figure and one in three people does not receive a single Swiss franc.

swissinfo, Simon Bradley

In brief

The Swiss National Science Foundation was established in 1952, and promotes independent research.

Its primary role is to evaluate research proposals from scientists and to fund those that it considers viable and likely to expand knowledge.

It also directs national research programmes, investigating issues from the dangers posed by genetically modified organisms to relations between Switzerland and apartheid South Africa.

The full results of "Inheriting in Switzerland - a socio-economic analysis with special consideration of generational relations" will be published at the end of May.

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Key facts

In Switzerland, inheritance and gift taxes are only levied by cantons and/or municipalities.
Almost all cantons do not tax transfers between husband and wife and about half do not tax transfers between parents and children.
Where children are taxed, the rates are usually very low (1%-6%).
Transfers between non-related persons are taxed at up to 60% in certain cantons.

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