More Than Half of American Adults Don't Have a Will, 2017 Survey Shows

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Let’s face it—end-of-life planning isn’t fun. The topic can seem morose, depressing -- maybe even a little scary. But it’s also a critical aspect of managing your assets and protecting your family, which is why it’s surprising that nearly 6 out of 10 Americans are unprepared for the inevitable.

According to a new survey, only 42 percent of U.S. adults currently have estate planning documents such as a will or living trust. For those with children under the age of 18, the figure is even lower, with just 36 percent having an end-of-life plan in place.

“I think many Americans avoid setting up a will because they simply don’t want to think about their death,” says Texas-based financial coach Craig Dacy. “However, setting up a will not only takes care of your loved ones financially, it can save them a lot of emotional stress after you’re gone.”

The study, conducted in January by Princeton Survey Research Associates International, asked 1,003 adults whether they currently have estate-planning documents in case of their death, as well as the reason why not (if applicable).

Forty-seven percent of survey respondents without estate documents said, “I just haven’t gotten around to it.” This is unsurprising to experts, who say an aversion to end-of-life planning is not only rooted in fear but also procrastination.

“This is the ‘I’m going to live forever’ theory. No one literally thinks that, but we all want to believe we are going to live until our 80s or 90s so we don’t think we need a will right now,” says Debbi King, author of “The ABC’s of Personal Finance”. “This isn’t true, of course. We all have an expiration date and no one knows exactly when it will be. The best thing you can do for your loved ones is have a will now.”

(see full infographic)

Age and assets are the greatest barriers

As one might expect, older Americans are the most likely demographic to have an estate plan in place. According to the survey, 81 percent of those age 72 or older have a will or living trust. However, that percentage declines significantly with younger people.

A staggering 78 percent of millennials (ages 18-36) do not have a will. Even more surprising is that 64 percent of Generation X (ages 37 to 52) doesn’t have a will, and nearly half of respondents in the 53 to 71-year-old age group (40 percent) said they don’t have one.

The problem, say experts, is twofold. First, younger Americans are generally unconcerned with their own mortality, which perpetuates the misconception that a will isn’t necessary until later in life.

“Young adults don’t expect something bad will happen to them, and if it does, they expect their parents to step in,” says estate-planning veteran Jack Hillis, president of Hillis Financial Services. “Additionally, wills are generally associated with the passing of a grandparent at that stage in life. At the age of 18 you’re thinking about your whole life in front of you, not what would happen if your life ended.”

What’s more, Hillis says baby boomers are aware that they should have a will in place, but planning for a possible tragedy is an uncomfortable process that forces people to answer some tough questions.

“At the age of 50 you still don’t envision the end of your life, so most will continue to put off the process as long as they can,” says Hillis. “And that’s unwise.”

Secondly, younger Americans tend to have fewer assets than their older counterparts, which feeds into the false impression that a will is only needed for those with substantial wealth or complex finances. In fact, the survey found that 29 percent of those without a will said it was because they “don’t have enough assets to leave anyone.”

“It’s so important to have a will regardless of age or assets, because not only does it allow you to make the decisions about what you want but it also makes it much easier on the loved ones you leave behind,” says Jody Giles, author of “Missing Pieces Plan: Providing You and Your Loved Ones Peace of Mind,” which helps people plan for the end of life. “Even if you don’t have the wealth of Steve Jobs or Prince, what you do have means something to somebody. Regardless of the amount of ‘wealth’ you are passing on, let it be handed over based on your wishes, not your state’s laws.”

Estate planning attorney Matthew Underwood explains that the whole purpose of a will is to tell a court how to distribute your assets in a special proceeding called probate. The purpose of probate is to give a public notice of death and allow creditors to file claims against the estate. Whatever is left after the creditors are paid goes to the beneficiaries. In the absence of a will, the particular state’s laws of succession direct how property gets distributed.

“In other words, if you don’t have a will, the state has one for you,” says Underwood. “Regardless of how old you are or how much wealth you have, would you rather have government officials dictate where your property goes or would you rather decide that for yourself?”

If you have children, a will is critical

One of the survey’s most surprising findings was that just 36 percent of those with children under 18 have an end-of-life plan in place. This is a potentially devastating oversight.

“I can not stress enough the importance of having a will if you have children,” says Giles. “If you have children you need a will, if for no other reason than the sole purpose of naming guardians. Selecting someone to care for our children if something happens to us is not what anyone wants to consider, but it’s imperative that we do. If you don’t nominate guardians in a will, a judge will decide who should take care of your kids after you die.”

The importance of a health care power of attorney

The study also asked respondents whether or not they have a health care power of attorney, which appoints a specific individual to make medical decisions for you if you’re incapable of doing so.

A health care power of attorney is more common than a will or living trust, with roughly 53 percent of U.S. adults having granted someone this legal authorization, according to the survey.

However, demographic disparities play a role here as well. While 83 percent of those over 72 have a power of attorney in place, only 41 percent of millennials can say the same. Again, experts say you should not wait until you’re a senior citizen to get yours in order.

“Perhaps even more importantly than a will, everyone over the age of 18 should have a power of attorney,” says Underwood, who points out that once a child turns 18, his or her parents are legally cut off from making some very important decisions.

“I’ve heard stories of kids going off to college or traveling abroad and then getting sick or hurt,” says Underwood. “When the parents call the hospital to find out what’s going on, the doctors won’t even talk to the parents because the student did not have a health care power of attorney.”

You can work with a lawyer to set up a health care power of attorney and an advanced health care directive, a document that sets out your medical preferences.

Is estate planning complicated or expensive?

Broadly speaking, the complexity and cost of setting up a will or living trust depends on how complex your circumstances and assets are. But generally speaking, a qualified lawyer can draft a simple will and power of attorney for less than $1,000.

“For individuals with modest wealth and straightforward wishes, a simple estate plan can be prepared quickly and inexpensively,” says Ashley Case, an Arizona-based tax and estate-planning attorney. “Some factors that tend to complicate an estate plan include multiple marriages, children from different relationships, certain business assets, a higher net-worth, and complex wishes regarding distributions.”

How to get started

Mark Gilfix, elderlaw attorney with Gilfix & La Poll Associates, LLP, explains what documents you need and how to set them up:

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Nick DiUlio

Nick DiUlio is an award-winning freelance writer and editor whose published work has focused on everything from profiles of artists and important political figures to hard-news stories with both national and local appeal. See full bio

3 days, said...

In my experience, i have come across a wide range of people who lack a will while they posses huge chunks of lands. I am aware that writing a will is not something easy but it will allow one to have a piece of mind about their property. David A. Malson Private Wealth Services

3 months, said...


5 months, said...

This is a process that no wants to think about and we just avoid because it puts our own mortality right in our face. I know it's only one city, not sure if they can practice elsewhere but for those of you looking for some advice or counsel on estate planningI think this company could be a valuable resource. I was able to get a will setup for my parents for less than $1000. I went back and forth for free trying to understand the process and received tons of great advice from a law firm in Las Vegas, NV. Take one look around the slot machines at a Vegas casino and you will see it's no secret that Las Vegas is a hot spot for retirement. Hope this helps some folks get prepared so our families can be ready when the inevitable happens.

7 months, said...

This article is great for those who are unfamiliar with estates, probates, trusts and inheritance issues.;.. Good estate planning is critical, and writer Nick DiUlio takes us through all the needed steps, showing us that estate and even trusts are not just for those who are wealthy and have a ton of assets or cash in the bank. Estate planning is for everyone, as he points out, and everyone should write a will.. Even if we, or our parents, have a small estate, we might want to create a will just to make sure that our money and property are distributed according to our, or our parent’s, true wishes. And not the wishes of local laws, a probate court judge or lawyers managing the process. You never know. I agree with Mr. DiUlio, We should set the stage and exert control, even after death, for how our assets will be distributed after death. Even if the estate is modest. Whatever it is… real estate, stocks, bonds, or other investment accounts such as savings bonds or mutual funds, or whatever… Personal property; retirement accounts; cash bank accounts. But as for trusts, discussed in great detail here in this article… I say why get into all the expenses and trouble and complexities of maintaining a trust, beginning with a pricey trust attorney, plus the expense of a trustee after we die, and even lawyers that may be involved after death and must be paid as well… Unless we really want to minimize or completely avoid the probate process, especially if we’re inheriting out-of-state real estate, land or a house, or several homes. Or maybe if we’re obsessed with the prospect of paying too much tax. But realistically, as for the federal estate and gift-tax exemption of $5.43 million or whatever it is now – honestly, how many of us have that much to leave, or are inheriting that much from wealthy parents? Not many. How many people do you know that have that kind of money? Do you? I don’t. Very few of us have that much to leave to our heirs, or are expecting that much as an inheritance. That’s the way it is. And anyway, if we're wealthy and do have those sorts of assets, we can afford to pay for complex pricey trusts and lawyers and trustees… Middle class heirs opt for trusts, and usually seem to opt for a simple will and estate set up, often going through the probate process if it’s necessary. So big deal. It’s not that bad, and it’s not that expensive. Of course with trust lawyers, probate is an ugly word. But as an heir, looking at this from the other perspective, as the receiver not the giver, if we’re expecting a modest inheritance and find that we’re needing some fast probate cash during probate, we can usually get immediate inheritance money with a loan on our inheritance by borrowing against inheritance. Sometimes it comes in handy. If we have our inheritance in trust, and are waiting for ever, frequently years, for distribution… we will often come up against a Spendthrift Clause, or Spendthrift Provision, which usually prevents us from borrowing against our inheritance in trust. Whereas, if our inheritance is in an estate in probate, we generally can get a loan on inheritance… borrow money against our inheritance. It sure helps if we’re broke at that point, believe me. So those of us creating a will or trust for our heirs or beneficiaries… might think about that. We might think long and hard about it. I think, as middle class heirs, when we get to that point in life where we’re actually waiting for an inheritance to distribute… it dawns on us rather quickly that our inheritance isn’t going to be that fabulous 7-figure step towards early retirement that we thought it would be, when we were 35. If you want to know the truth… I see many heirs, with lousy cash flow let’s say, that really need immediate cash, and are feeling broke and somewhat disappointed and depressed about their inheritance and their life in general – will frequently begin researching probate advance and inheritance cash advance or inheritance loan companies… for estate loans or estate advances right away, inheritance loans, large or small inheritance advances or inheritance advance loans, probate loans, or probate real estate loans — and just to be safe will submit inheritance cash advance, probate loan, or probate cash advance applications to more than one online probate loan, trust fund cash advance or inheritance loan company that deals with loans on inheritance, inheritance loan advances, probate cash advance funds, inheritance loans in advance, and loans against inheritance, from established probate cash, inheritance loan companies like, or perhaps or probate cash companies like Established probate loans specialists that provide similar inheritance loan advance services, for probate heirs and trust fund beneficiaries. But no matter how hard our parents tried to make sure their estate planning was perfect for us, their heirs… a lot of cash gets used up these days, and what we get, what’s left, may not be as much as they had hoped to leave us. Or that we hoped to receive. Our parents, or we, can try to do everything right – but reality enters in and things can change… whether or not these wonderful estate-planning golden rules are followed or not. So if some fast probate cash can enter the picture and lighten up the mood, and give heirs the ability to live high on the hog for a little awhile… hey, what's the harm in that! It sure beats sitting around depressed about what other people are inheriting, or about what we’re not inheriting! My sense of it is -- we may as well spend some money and live a little, and maybe turn around our own luck with the right attitude, in the right direction, increasing our positive attitude as well as our income! Why not.