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More Than Half of American Adults Don’t Have a Will

We’ve seen this before and I’m sure we’ll see it again, but a new study shows that nearly 6 out of 10 Americans do not have a Will or other estate planning documents.  Even more distressing is the same study shows that just 36 percent of adults with children under the age of 18 have an end-of-life plan in place.

In general, I believe there a three things that keep people from setting up an estate plan:  first, most people only deal with things when they become a top priority.  Since most people do not believe they will die anytime soon estate planning is rarely a priority; second, most people do not want to think about death and certainly don’t want to plan for it; and third, there are many, many other things people would rather spend their money on than working with a lawyer to plan their death.   I mean really, can it get much worse than that?  However, having an estate plan not only takes care of your loved ones financially, it can save them a lot of emotional stress both while you are alive and after you’re gone.

The study, which supports some of my beliefs, was conducted in January 2017 by Princeton Survey Research Associates International.  They 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, and no one knows exactly when they will die.

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.

Overall, 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.  Even in your 50’s you still don’t envision the end of your life, so most continue to put off the process as long as possible.

Also, younger Americans tend to have fewer assets than their older counterparts, which feeds into a false impression that a will is only needed for people 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.”

One 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 estat

The Safest/Practical Places To Store Your Will

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A Will can be stored in your home in a personal safe, a locked filing cabinet, or in another safe location. If you store your Will in a location that requires a combination, password, or key for entry, be sure to share that information with someone you trust, such as your spouse, your adult children, or your attorney.

Storing Your Will With An Attorney

Many estate attorneys and personal attorneys will be able to store your Will in a secure location in his or her office.  If you choose to store it with your attorney, be sure to tell your family that you’ve done so.

Safe Deposit Box

Unless the box is jointly managed (and your survivors are authorized to access the safe deposit box), the bank will likely require a court order to access the box.  There is nothing wrong with this, however, there will be an extra step or two in the probate process.

Informing People Where Your Will Is Stored

Wherever you store your Will, make sure that important people you trust—your spouse, adult children, attorney, etc…—know where it’s located so that they can easily locate and access the document when the time comes.


Making your Will: A Parent’s Most Important Decision

Hopefully you already have your comprehensive plan covering finances, legal, housing and care stored in place.  If you don’t have a comprehensive plan yet, this is the time to get started.  Do some homework and seek out professional assistance.

One of the most important decisions you may ever make as a parent could be selecting a guardian in your Will to raise your children.  First, a little background about naming a guardian for your minor children.  In Washington, the only method where you can be certain your guardianship wishes are honored is through your Will.  Stating orally or in a separate writing who you want to raise your children may give a court some guidance, but is not required to be honored.  If, however, your Will says who will raise your children when you are gone, a court is required to honor that designation.  There are only limited situations where your selection would not be honored such as if the person chosen is deceased or incapacitated.  Such a selection will certainly minimize the risk of a custody battle between competing individuals.Family walking in field of flowers

So who is a good choice for this role?  That is different for every family.  Many of my clients choose a sibling; some choose a parent.  Here are some things to keep in mind in making the selection:  if I choose my parents, will they have the physical ability to care for and raise a young child?  If you choose a sibling or a friend, does that person have similar values and beliefs regarding child rearing?  This is probably the most important factor.  For instance, if you are deeply religious, leaving your kids to your brother who has forsaken all religion may not accomplish your goals.

A question I am almost always asked is – “Can I name my brother and his wife as co-guardians?”  The answer, of course, is yes.  But you should consider the ramifications of such a choice.  If your brother dies while raising your child his wife, to whom you have no relation, is now raising your child.  Another issue arises from the unfortunate possibility your brother and his wife may divorce.  If you’ve named co-guardians, the next question is who will continue to raise your child?  Of course, your attorney can easily write language in your Will that can solve these thorny little issues.

One last thing to keep in mind is the potential for the guardian to move out of the geographic area where grandparents may live.  If the guardian is relocated out of state and away from a grandparent, you may want to consider language that terminates the guardianship and provide for the alternate guardian to assume that duty (assuming the alternate lives near the grandparent).