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Can someone explain the difference between legacy and inheritance?

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6 Answers

up vote 7 down vote accepted

In my mind, "inheritance" is almost exclusively used to deal with physical or monetary goods, features, or character traits; you can inherit your father's estate, you can inherit your mother's good looks, you can inherit your grandfather's business sense.

"Legacy" can be used in that same sense, but it can also have a much broader sense to refer to a situation that is set up for for the benefit of the descendents: "My father's legacy was the freewheeling, open, friendly town that bears his name: Fatherville." Or, "Our parents' legacy was not simply that they bequeathed us ten million dollars each, but that with that money in trust, we felt free to explore, experiment, and take risks that we would not have been able to, had we not had that safety net available."

(Also, as pointed out in some comments, "inheritance" is generally from the viewpoint of the receiver, while "legacy" is from the viewpoint of the giver: My inheritance was my father's legacy.)

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@Helion, thanks for all those examples. –  Andrey Adamovich Mar 24 '11 at 18:54
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Legacy, as it relates to inheritance, will be of broader or deeper scope. When inheritance refers to one generation's gifts to another, a legacy would refer to three or four generations.

Both terms can be used to denote objects other than money:

I have inherited my father's eyes.

Drinking is the family legacy.

Either an inheritance or legacy can be positive or negative. Legacy does carry a slightly more fatalistic connotation with it: The legacy will live on through the children.

Hellion's observation of legacy's use with regards to a specific individual is also completely valid. The word can be used to describe a legend or long-standing effect caused by one person ("this is his legacy") or even a family, nation or race ("this is their legacy").

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'Legacy' specifically has the additional related meaning of 'a person admitted to a university because of the attendance of a parent at the same school' often with the implication that it was done in disregarding merit of the applicant. 'Inheritance' has no such meaning.

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As happens so often, there is the dictionary definition and today´s connotation. The dictionary shows that both words are basically synonyms. Inheritance is generally used when referring to monetary or material goods being handed down from one person to another. Legacy refers to how a person will be remembered by others.

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They are basically synonyms that have fluctuating nuances. See http://www.thefreedictionary.com/legacy

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That's what I thought as well. They are synonyms, but I'm really intrested in understanding the nuances. Recently I was corrected by one of my friends when I said that "this gonna be my legacy for my son" and he said that I should use word "inheritance" instead. Though I didn't really get why? –  Andrey Adamovich Mar 24 '11 at 16:26
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@Andrey: I don't agree with your friend: I would be more likely to say "legacy", because you are talking about it from your side. If you were talking about it from your son's viewpoint, I might say "inheritance", though "legacy" would still be possible. –  Colin Fine Mar 24 '11 at 16:45
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Another difference is that "inheritance" tends to mean the whole of what one inherits from somebody, whereas "legacy" refers to a particular item inherited. Often these will be the same, but sometimes not. –  Colin Fine Mar 24 '11 at 16:46
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Generally, "his legacy" would mean the money (or other stuff) somebody left after he died, and "her inheritance" would mean the money (or other stuff) she inherited after somebody else died. They are the same thing from different points of view.

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