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When many of today's parents sit down to plan for their retirements and their children's college education, images of Grandma and Grandpa quickly come to their minds.

Depending on whose estimate you use, that older generation has amassed a collective fortune of somewhere between $10 trillion and $12 trillion.And over the next few decades much of their money will be passed down through inheritances and gifts in what Institutional Investor magazine calls "the largest transfer of wealth in history."

The subject has just begun to come up for discussion among business and investment planners, government policymakers and others concerned with both the opportunities and problems it may represent.

As it gets more attention, it seems sure to stir strong feelings in national and state political arenas as well as in the privacy of many households. It figures to play an important part, for instance, in any plans for the future of Social Security and quite possibly the whole tax system as well.

At the same time, it represents a huge potential market for financial-services companies that sell stocks, bonds, insurance, annuities, mutual funds and other investment products.

Whether for good or ill, the Great $10 Trillion Legacy looms as a certainty, ordained by the nation's economic history since World War II.

As today's seniors came out of the war years to form families and begin careers, they began buying houses that would in many cases rise dramatically in value through the 1960s, '70s and '80s.

In addition, the economy enjoyed many booms and relatively few busts through those decades. In the midst of this prosperity, millions of people worked hard, saved assiduously and invested well.

Now that this generation is aging, it faces the eternal truth of "you can't take it with you." So financial analysts have begun to consider what might happen to this money as it is passed down.

Already they disagree. Institutional Investor says much of it will be saved and invested, rather than spent. By contrast, a recent poll of baby boomers conducted for the First Interstate Bank of California in Los Angeles says a majority will use it to pay off debts or earmark it for tuition bills.

In fact, it seems likely that many current members of the mid-30s to upper-40s generation don't know yet how much money they might have coming or what they will do with it.

Of the 500 baby boomers polled for First Interstate by Fleishman-Hillard Inc. of St. Louis, 14 percent reported having already received some type of inheritance from parents or an immediate family member other than a spouse.

Another 62 percent said they were "somewhat" to "extremely" likely to receive an inheritance in the next 20 years.

Asked what they would do with a hypothetical $50,000 inheritance, 26 percent of the respondents said they would use it to pay off debts, and 25 percent said they would save it for children's college tuition.

Twenty percent reported they would save it for retirement, and 14 percent said they would use it to buy a home. A far smaller number - 4 percent - said they would spend it on personal items.

That last figure, at least, suggests what many financial experts regard as a healthy awareness among today's young to middle-aged adults that their financial preparedness for the future isn't as solid as it might be.

No less than 86 percent of the survey respondents said they felt, either "strongly" or "somewhat," that their generation isn't saving enough for retirement.