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After recession, few Americans expect to inherit money

Martha C. White, NBC News contributor
Pascal Broze | Onoky | Getty Images

Three-quarters of people responding to a new survey said they don't expect to inherit money, but financial experts say they might be too pessimistic.

In the survey, conducted by Interest.com, a financial planning site, just 27 percent of respondents age 18 to 59 said they expect to receive an inheritance from their parents or other family. Even those who believe there will be something left over for them aren't expecting a huge windfall. Among respondents who do expect to inherit money, property or valuables, roughly half say it would be worth less than $100,000; a quarter think they'll inherit between $10,000 and $50,000.

But those who expect nothing may be bracing for the worst, said Mike Sante, managing editor of Interest.com. "Younger people tend to be perhaps too conservative in estimating whether or not they'll get an inheritance because they don't want to think about it," Sante said.

Derek Gabrielsen, a wealth adviser with Strategic Wealth Partners, said he believes that more than 50 percent of those who expect nothing will receive something.

"The baby boomer generation is, without question, going to be the largest wealth transfer in American history …from them to the next generation," Gabrielsen said.

A certain amount of pessimism might be justified, however. New research from the Dallas Federal Reserve makes what it calls a "conservative estimate" that every American household lost between $50,000 and $120,000 in economic output over the course of the financial crisis and recession.

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According to Fed research, "U.S. household net worth plunged $16 trillion, or 24 percent, from third quarter 2007 to first quarter 2009."

Other surveys have yielded similarly gloomy predictions about the likelihood of receiving an inheritance. The 2012 Allianz Life American Legacies Pulse Study conducted last year found that 15 percent of baby boomers didn't anticipate inheriting anything, and nearly a quarter — 23 percent — expected their inheritance would be less than $50,000.

That might not sound like a lot of money, said Sante, but it can augment a neglected nest egg or pay down debt. Those were the two most popular actions people said they would take if they received an inheritance.

Just 5 percent thought they would inherit more than half a million dollars.

Interest.com found that despite their children's misgivings, more than six in 10 older Americans (those 60 and older) replied that they expect to leave behind an inheritance. Of those, 22 percent thought they'd be able to bequeath between $100,000 and $500,000.

Their assessment might be overly optimistic, due to a combination of longer life spans, rising healthcare costs and low interest rates that hurt people with fixed-income investments. These factors are chipping away at older Americans' ability to pass along wealth to the next generation, especially among the less-affluent and those who need long-term care at the end of their lives.

"When you get below the higher net worth people, if someone is in that long-term care situation, that can deplete someone's assets very quickly," Gabrielsen said. "In that case, I'd say it's more about whatever's left over.

—By Martha C. White, NBC News.