Inheritance System and Care – Part 2

by Dr Antu Sorainen, Title of Docent, Academy of Finland Research Fellow, University of Helsinki, Gender Studies (antu.sorainen@helsinki.fi)

“It’s almost more important for a gay person to write a will than almost any other group in society. When writing a will, an LGBT person will have been able to give consideration to people and organisations that have had a positive effect on their life: they are not simply choosing their blood relatives to inherit with no regard to whether they deserve it”, responded the UK lawyer Siôn Hudson – who regularly drafts wills for people from all around Cambridge – to my first blog from 31 May.[1]

In this second blog I am discussing why it matters for queer people how governments seek to reform inheritance tax laws. In my view, sexuality is deeply implicated in the distribution of wealth through inheritance system. Inheritance taxation is under scrutiny in Europe: and an urgent matter when we think about inheritance from the point of view of queer relationships. The trend to abolish inheritance taxes has direct bearings on the organization of queer care, both structurally and at personal level, as the decline of public welfare puts more ideological, political and managerial stress on private care.

If queers do not write wills to support financially their friends, lovers and community (a fact derived from by my research data and practicing lawyers’ experiences), the queer community will depend more than before on the co-incidences of blood ties and will be exposed to familial and social homophobia.

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My case study is the Nordic welfare countries where finance economics and political populism are currently feeding on social injustice in terms of inheritance taxation. Sweden abolished inheritance tax in 2005 in favour of capital gains tax, meaning that property is taxed not when inherited but only when realized.[2] Norway abolished inheritance tax in 2014, though it remains in Denmark and Finland. The latter country, however, seeks to follow the lead of Sweden and Norway; a new government has declared that intergenerational transmission in family firms will be advanced through reducing inheritance tax, and that capital gains tax and “other options” will be evaluated.

Finland risks a lot. Even in the equality “paradise” of Sweden, family background (status, education level, surname) correlates with the individual’s wealth path in society. This social factor arguably only heightened when capital gains tax was introduced. As one consequence of the cutting of inheritance tax, flats now circulate within families even for generations because the capital gains tax is rather high (30%) in Sweden. Rich families do not sell their flats but pass them on as tax-free legacies. This influences on the gentrification process in the biggest cities, and also the continuing difficulty of class travel in society.

As an example of how capital gains tax leads to socio-economic stagnation and creates a class glass ceiling for queers, we might take the example of Finnish immigrants to Sweden. Many Finns moved to Stockholm, Gothenburg or Norrköping suburbs in the 1960s to live on factory jobs. This mass migration was one consequence of the rapid urbanization of the Finnish society, which left small farmers without a future in their own country. These rural migrants were accompanied by a significant number of Finnish lesbians and gays who moved to Sweden in the 1970s as the sexual atmosphere was much more liberal there.[3] These immigration generational cohorts are now getting elderly, and if they had children these are now properly ‘swedizised’. Even if some of them are economically well-off, they are often without any hope of ever buying a flat in city centres since valuable flats are circulated through the inheritance system in a number of wealthy Swedish families.

Marriage would open a route to this circle of inherited flats – but marriage was not a legal option when Finnish queer immigrants were younger. These flats are not on the open market for other immigrants or Sweden’s own nouveau rich, either. It is clear that this does not help to overcome social inequalities or to maintain big Swedish cities as a buzz of trade and liberal life supported by mobility and difference.

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Capital gains tax thus impacts on social minorities in negative ways. It will lead to increasing accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few. This “weather forecast” could be given to all societies with a big ratio of social inequalities, such as the UK.

John Stuart Mill advocated, for one, high inheritance taxes. For Keynes, inheritance was inherently unequal and not to be defended albeit he valued the right for economic gain – but the conservative agenda thrives and we lack critical voices based on proper socio-legal impact analysis. A shift in the direction of capital gains tax would result in an increase in socio-economic homogamy, the effects of which would impact the stability of minorities in society – those whose intimate relations, reproductive choices and support relations do not accord with the law’s categorizations. Queer sexualities have relevance for the inheritance institution’s categories in that the inheritance system distributes wealth mainly in small heterosexual family circles and potentially neglects “other” relationship categories than those based on blood and heterosexual marriage.

Adopting the capital gains tax may benefit some lucky queers born in wealthy and liberal families but keeping the inheritance tax and adjusting the system of inheritance taxation could benefit many if not all. What I would suggest is to have a better look at inheritance tax categories to make them sensitive to difference outside of conjugal norm and to better hinder tax avoidance of the rich through family firms.

[1] http://www.millersands.com/the-importance-of-having-a-will-the-lgbt-perspective/

[2] Magnus Henrekson and Daniel Waldenström. 2014. ”Inheritance Taxation in Sweden, 1885–2004: The Role of Ideology, Family Firms and Tax Avoidance.” http://www.ifn.se/wfiles/wp/wp1032.pdf

[3]Sorainen, Antu. 2014. “Two Cities of Helsinki: One Practically Queer and One Liberally Gay.” In Matt Cook and Jennifer Evans (eds.) Queer Cities, Queer Cultures: Europe Post 1945. London: Bloomsbury, 211-239.

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