2021 Wills and Estate Planning Study
For the First Time, Caring.com’s Wills Survey Finds that Younger Adults Are More Likely to Have a Will than Middle-Aged Adults
Written By: Daniel Cobb, Managing Editor
What You Should Know:
- The number of young adults with a will increased by 63% since 2020.
- In 2021, 18-34 year-olds are, for the first time, more likely to have a will than 35 – 54 year-olds.
- Despite COVID-19, the overall percentage of Americans with a will has not significantly changed.
The COVID-19 Pandemic has changed the nation’s perspective on many things, and estate planning is definitely one of them. “COVID-19 has significantly increased the demand for estate planning,” says Patrick Hicks, Head of Legal at Trust & Will. “The pandemic has led many to look for estate planning services that are accessible without going into office buildings or public spaces. For each of these, COVID has accelerated trends that were already in place. We expect to see these trends continue even after the impact of COVID-19 becomes less acute.”
That being said, not every demographic has taken the lessons learned from COVID-19 to heart. Caring.com’s 2021 Wills and Estate Planning Study found that middle- and older- aged adults are less likely to have a will now than they were just one year ago, while younger adults are 63% more likely to have one this year than they were pre-pandemic. Shockingly, 18-34 year-olds are now 16% more likely to have a will than those in the 35-54 age group. The younger generation was also the most likely to cite COVID-19 as the reason they started taking estate planning seriously.
“There has been a greater focus on estate planning by younger Americans due to COVID-19,” says Hicks. “In many ways, the pandemic forced Americans to consider a new perspective on estate planning. Many younger Americans had delayed creating an estate plan by assuming (incorrectly) that estate planning is only for older people and not relevant for young, healthy people. The unknown aspects of COVID were an unexpected shock that helped many younger Americans realize that estate planning is important precisely because you can never know what the future may bring. Having a plan in place is one small step to protect yourself and your family from otherwise uncontrollable risks.”
To demystify estate planning and help people better understand the process, Caring.com partnered with YouGov to conduct a survey of 2,500 Americans to determine who is engaging in estate planning, and why or why not. Since 2015, Caring.com has been conducting wills surveys to help raise awareness of the importance of estate planning, especially among people that may not feel that they have the resources or tools needed to create a will or living trust.
In our 2021 wills survey, we found that while the COVID-19 pandemic has increased people’s desire to get a will (35% saw a greater need), the overall percentage of people with a will hasn’t changed since last year – 2 out of 3 still don’t have crucial estate planning documents. In the wake of COVID-19, it’s important to provide the education to help Americans both see the need, and understand what steps to take to ensure that they have a proper estate plan in place.
COVID-19’s Impact on Estate Planning
Despite COVID-19, the overall prevalence of estate planning hasn’t substantially changed since 2020, and is still considerably lower than in previous years.
While there was a slightly greater number of people who said they have a will or another estate planning document since 2020, it’s minimal with only a 2.5% increase since last year. Additionally, the overall percentage is still down since 2017 (33% in 2021, vs. 42% in 2017).
1 out of 3 people said that COVID caused them to see a greater need for an estate plan, but 31% of those who saw a greater need didn’t do anything about it.
When asked if COVID-19 has caused them to personally see a greater need for a will and/or estate plan, 2 out of 3 respondents said that it hasn’t caused them to see a greater need or take any additional steps in the estate planning process. Of those that saw a greater need, only 31% actually took action. Overall, 1 out of 4 respondents were motivated by COVID-19 to engage in the estate planning process, but only 5% of the total population cited COVID-19 as the reason they followed through by actually obtaining a will or another estate planning document.
For more information about why people see a need for estate planning, but often don’t follow through, see our section on “The Importance of Estate Planning.”
Younger adults were much more motivated by COVID-19 to engage in the estate planning process than the older generations.
In 2020, only 16% of Americans ages 18-34 said they have a will or another estate planning document. In 2021, that percentage rose by 9 points – an increase of 63% in just one year. During this same time period, the percentage of both middle-aged and older adults with a will has decreased significantly – more on that below.
A significant motivator of this jump was the COVID-19 Pandemic – Young adults were considerably more likely than other age groups to say that COVID-19 motivated them to take further steps in the estate planning process. Overall, 35% of all 18-34 year-olds were motivated by COVID to engage in the estate planning process, compared to only 23% of 35-54 year-olds and 16% of those 55 and older.
Younger adults were also more likely to actually follow through – middle-aged and older adults were more likely to see a greater need for estate planning, but not take any further action, such as talking with loved ones, researching a will, or actually obtaining estate planning documents.
The Prevalence of Estate Planning
Younger adults are now more likely than middle-aged adults to have an estate planning document.
Concerningly, those in the age groups that need these documents the most are less and less likely to actually have one. The number 35-54 year-olds with a will has decreased from 37% in 2019 to 22.5% in 2021 – a decline of 39%. Similarly, the number of adults 55 and older with a will has fallen from 60% to 44% since 2019. This is also a decrease of 27%.
There is good news, however. As mentioned above, the number of younger adults with a will or other estate plan increased by 63% since 2020. This demographic was highly motivated by COVID-19 – so much so that those in the 18-34 age group are now more likely than those in the 35-54 age group to have an estate planning document.
The Percentage of Americans in the middle-income bracket who have a will has gone up since 2020.
The percentage of those who make $40 – $80k a year who said they have a will increased from 33% in 2020 to 39% in 2021 – a jump of 18%. Those making under $40k were slightly less likely to have a will in 2021, while those making more than $80k were slightly more likely to have estate planning documents.
The Percentage of Blacks and Hispanics with a will is trending in the right direction.
Overall, there are still only about a third of Black and Hispanics who have a will. However, that percentage has increased since 2020. The number of Black Americans with a will has increased by 6.2% (from 25.9% to 27.5%). Similarly, the number of Hispanics with a will has increased by 12% (from 28.2% to 31.6%). In this same time period, the number of White Americans with a will has remained unchanged.
The Importance of Estate Planning
Besides procrastination, Americans are increasingly citing a lack of understanding about how to get a will as the main reason they don’t have estate planning documents.
Since 2017, the percentage of people who say they don’t know how to get a will has increased by 90% (from 4% to 7.6%). While it’s still the #1 cited reason, simple procrastination has continued to be less of a factor as to why most Americans don’t have a will. In 2019, about half of all respondents who don’t have a will said that they “just hadn’t gotten around to it.” In 2021, that number has shrunk to only 34%. Of particular note, Black Americans were less likely to cite procrastination as the reason they haven’t gotten a will – the number decreased by 27% since 2020. “I don’t have enough assets to leave to anyone” is still the second most common reason to neglect estate planning.
Despite the COVID Pandemic, the overall importance that people place on having a will is unchanged since the beginning of 2020.
COVID-19 hasn’t changed the fact that almost two-thirds of Americans say that having a will is somewhat or very important, yet only one-third actually have estate planning documents. While many people say they were motivated by COVID-19 to see a greater need for a will and even take further steps, more than 1 out of 3 American’s still don’t think it’s important – or haven’t even thought about it at all.
The majority of Americans still believe that you should have a will by the time you’re 35.
Similarly to last year, 1 in 4 say that you should have a will by the age of 35. However, 35-54 year-olds, in particular, are both more unsure or more likely to believe that you can put it off. Of particular note, the number of middle-aged adults who think that you should have a will by the time you are 35 decreased by 17%, while the number that said 65 is the appropriate age increased by 43%.
Of those who don’t have a will, but have started thinking about it, most don’t get farther in the estate planning process than talking to loved ones.
34% of those who don’t have a will have started thinking about it and have taken some type of action – of that group 2 out of 3 haven’t gotten any farther than talking to loved ones. Overall, 58% of respondents who don’t have a will said that they haven’t started thinking about it or making a plan.
What You Should Know About Estate Planning
While our data shows that the majority of people believe estate planning is important, the comparatively low number of people who actually have documents in place indicates a lack of education and familiarity with the process, among other reasons. The brief explanations of the most important estate planning documents below can help you understand the process and which documents you may need to best plan for your future.
Estate Planning Documents
The three main estate planning documents you’re likely to come across are wills, trusts, and advanced directives.
According to the Caring.com 2021 survey, wills are the most common type of estate planning document. Even those who do not have a will or know exactly what it is have most likely heard the term before.
A will can be used to dictate several different things, including how to divide up property, guardianship, debts, and more. For some people, a will covers all estate planning needs. But in some situations, such as for those who own large properties or predict any family disputes that could impact the will, further estate planning documents, like a trust, may be necessary.
Trusts are useful for several reasons, including providing more support than wills for those with larger estates, large amounts of property, or those who expect a disability. The most notable difference between a will and trust, however, is when the documents come into effect. A will determines who will become a beneficiary after the person passes away; however, trusts take effect as soon as they’re enacted (hence the term “living trust”). It’s also worth noting that creating a trust is more complex, and more expensive, than a will.
Another reason that one may choose to have a living trust is to avoid probate court. “While everyone’s situation can be unique, a general rule is that the larger the value of the estate, the greater need there is for a living trust,” says Chas Rampenthal, General Counsel for Legal Zoom. “The main reason here is to avoid probate, which can be a long and costly process – especially for larger estates. Additionally, when a will goes into probate, it becomes a court document; a living trust, on the other hand, is not made public upon your death, so your estate can be managed in private.”
Advanced directives (also called advanced healthcare directives) stipulate a person’s wishes regarding end of life care and/or what is to happen if the person becomes mentally incapacitated or unable to communicate later in life. Thus, like living trusts, advanced directives are designed to take effect during a person’s life, not after they pass.
Despite its importance, our survey found that nearly 1 in 5 people (18%) do not know what an advanced health care directive is. This can be a mistake according to Phillip H. Palmer, ChFC, managing executive at The Chestnut Street Group. “Proper estate planning documents should include an advance healthcare directive, which provides guidance for your family and medical professionals in the event you can no longer make your own health care decisions. In an age of technology and medical advancements, much can be done to sustain life. The directive takes the pressure of making difficult decisions away from your family members.”
You can learn more about these documents by visiting Caring.com’s Guide to Advanced Health Care Directives.
Starting the Estate Planning Process
In the wake of COVID-19, people are turning to remote and online solutions for all sorts of services – and estate planning is no exception.
“Estate planning has a well-deserved reputation for being an archaic and outdated process,” says Hicks. “COVID has forced the industry to catch up with the times. Changes in technology have made it easier to create estate plans meeting or exceeding the quality available from legacy lawyers. Concurrently, changes in laws and regulations are making it easier to sign and store estate plans online, allowing more people to create a plan from the safety and convenience of their own homes.”
To learn more about online estate planning services, read Caring.com’s guide to The Best Online Will Services of 2021. For many people, estate planning is a daunting task. But, the process can be simplified by breaking it down into steps and asking yourself some basic questions. To learn more about how to get started creating a will, trust, or advanced directive, visit Caring.com’s Guide to Estate Planning.
Caring.com’s survey included 2,500 Americans and was conducted in December 2020 by YouGov. For more information about our methodology, the survey results, or how to cite it, you can contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Additionally, you can see previous versions of the Wills Survey by clicking the links below: