I got some stock from my family last year. Do I call this as an inheritance from my family? Or a gift from my family?

Another way to ask this is: Does inheritance always happen posthumously?

  • 1
    As for "Does inheritance always happen posthumously?" all dictionaries seem to agree.
    – Kris
    Commented Aug 16, 2017 at 7:16
  • Not all dictionaries. For example, Black's Law Dictionary notes that the word inherit "is also used in its popular sense, as the equivalent of to take or receive." (My copy is in print so I can't link to it.)
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Aug 16, 2017 at 18:03
  • 1
    Also "to receive or be left with an object or situation from a previous owner." books.google.com/…
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Aug 16, 2017 at 18:19

3 Answers 3


Short Answer

Inheritance usually refers only to a post-humous transfer, but that usage isn't absolute. There are circumstances when people will use the word in an extremely broad sense that also includes large transfers received during the donor's life in lieu of a true inheritance received at death, and it isn't completely incorrect to do so.

For example, if the stock made up 90% or 100% ownership in a family business, often this might be called an inheritance even if it was received while the donors were alive.

Still, if you received the stock while the donors were alive, the preferred term would be to call it a gift (even though a gift can include gifts made during life and gifts made upon death).

Long Answer

If you receive something because someone died and their will says that you should receive it, the proper legal term for this is a devise. You are a devisee. A devise and bequest and legacy are close synonyms. Historically, a gift by will of personal property at death was called a bequest or a legacy, and a gift by will of real property at death was called a devise, but the terms are now often used more or less interchangably.

The original primary meaning of the word legacy has become a secondary and technical one in contemporary usage. Now, the term legacy is primarily used to refer to the reputation that someone (usually, but not always, someone who has died or at least ceased to participate in a particular field in which they are distinguished) has left behind and is associate with.

If you receive something because someone died and they didn't have a will, the proper legal term for this is an inheritance and you are an heir. (In civil law jurisdictions not derived from the laws of England where English is spoken, such as Louisiana, there is also the term a testamentary inheritance which means a devise or bequest in the narrow technical senses of those words.)

However, many people (even in legal circumstances) use the term inheritance to refer to anything received as a consequence of someone's death even if it was pursuant to something other than intestate succession (which is the passing of property at death other than pursuant to a will or a beneficiary designation or joint ownership). And, the term heir is likewise sometimes used more generally to refer to anyone receiving an inheritance in the broader sense of the word.

The term heir also refers to someone who would be entitled to receive an intestate succession at the time if someone died, even in the absence of any actual inheritance or death. This narrow sense of the word is also called an heir at law. And the term heir is also used in a slightly different sense to refer to someone who would receive the property or feudal title of someone if they died, even if this is not pursuant to intestate succession. If one wants to distinguish this sense of this paragraph from other senses of the word heir, one can say heir apparent.

(There are also non-literal senses of the words inheritance and heir that refer to people who are recipients of intellectual contributions made by someone or some movement. Similarly, there is a technical sense of the word in genetics which means to receive a trait genetically from a parent. More generally, sometimes the semantic focus when one uses the word inheritance is on the fact that something is received by someone in a younger generation from an older generation, rather than on the timing of the transfer.)

If you receive property from a trust or a beneficiary designation you are a transferee also called a beneficiary and the technical terms for this are non-probate transfer or distribution.

The term gift usually refers to a transfer of property during life, but the strict technical meaning of the word gift includes both gifts made during life and gifts given as a consequence of a death. The strict technical term for a gift given during life when the context doesn't make the fact that the donor is alive at the time of the gift is a lifetime gift or an inter vivos gift.

While it is contrary to the technical meaning of the term inheritance and also to the broader literal meaning of the term inheritance, people sometimes the term inheritance very loosely to refer to a large lifetime gift made in lieu of an inheritance or devise or bequest at death. But, this usage is not appropriate in technical discussions.

If you received the stock during the life of the donor, it would be more clear and a better usage to say that it was a gift, rather than an inheritance, even though it would not be unheard of (and not absolutely incorrect) to call a large gift made during life in lieu of a transfer at death an inheritance and even though a gift, in theory, could be made after death. In this extremely broad, but literal, sense, inheritance refers to a substantial, usually one time, intergenerational transfer of wealth.

Also, when one talks about inherited wealth one is usually talking about all wealth received from lifetime gifts and gifts made upon death by any means, combined, rather than in the narrow sense of wealth received upon someone's death. Similarly, the word inheritance can be used in the sense of all of a person's inherited wealth rather than with respect to a particular transfer of property, and in this sense inheritance refers to all wealth received from lifetime gifts and gifts made upon death by any means, combined, rather than in the narrow sense of wealth received upon someone's death. Indeed, sometimes inheritance is used even more broadly still to refer to everything a person owns (i.e. all of their wealth) without regard to its source, although this usage is usually limited to poetic or religious uses of the word.

(While I don't cite to sources here, I have been an estate planning attorney for twenty years and just yesterday taught a course to attorneys and accountants that spent the first 40 minutes or so defining these terms.)

The origin of the word inherit is as follows:

Middle English enherite ‘receive as a right’, from Old French enheriter, from late Latin inhereditare ‘appoint as heir’, from Latin in- ‘in’ + heres, hered- ‘heir’.


dictionary.com lists the definition of inheritance as:

something that is or may be inherited; property passing at the owner's death to the heir or those entitled to succeed; legacy.

So in regards to "Does inheritance happen posthumously?", the answer seems to be yes.

  • This is a simple and primary sense of the word, but a more complete dictionary like the Oxford English Dictionary (I would expect, I don't have access to it), should include other senses of the word that could also be applicable here.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Aug 16, 2017 at 18:13

According to the UK government, shares are gifts with value, and hence they are subject to Inheritance tax.

The same is true in the United States.

Therefore, as stocks are subject to inheritance tax, they are first and foremost an inheritance.

  • So you're saying that if someone gives you shares of a stock, (a) the recipient or donor has to pay income tax on that amount (and who pays), regardless of value; and (b) shares given to a person have to go through probate first? I'm trying to understand your answer, which does not ring true from the perspective of US law.
    – user6726
    Commented Aug 16, 2017 at 16:27
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    The US at the federal government level has an "estate tax" that applies at death, and a "gift tax" that applies to lifetime transfers. Both taxes allow substantial economic value to pass tax free before the estate tax or gift tax actually has to be paid, although tax returns for the gift tax must often be filed even if no taxes are due at that time. An inheritance tax is one imposed upon the amount received by an individual. An estate tax is one imposed on what someone owns at death. A few US states have inheritances taxes but not many. Gifts and inheritances are income tax free in US law.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Aug 16, 2017 at 17:51

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