No one likes to think about death, especially their own. The topic can seem morose and maybe even scary. No one likes to think about sitting down to make a will, either. Images of lawyers, reams of paperwork, and a somber atmosphere in a stuffy office likely come to mind.
Plus, there are the fees to shell out to pay for a will — something that will be locked in a file drawer for years and years, in most cases. Wouldn’t it be more fun to put that money into a vacation fund or everyday expenses?
Just 36 percent of people with children under age 18 have an end-of-life plan in place.
Wills and estate planning are so important, you should think of them as a love letter to your family. When it comes to estate planning, just 42 percent of U.S. adults have documents such as a will or living trust in place, according to a recent survey by Caring.com. This leaves many families struggling with decisions and costs they haven’t planned for, potentially.
What would happen if you had a catastrophic illness? Who would make health care decisions on your behalf, or have access to your private health information?
Many baby boomers are neglecting a key part of their retirement plans by not having an estate plan. Death without a plan for one’s assets can create chaos for surviving family members — any competent financial planner will tell you that.
"I think that on a list of things to do, it's at the bottom, if it even makes the list," Nicole Hart, director of trusts and estates at Sontag Advisory, a New York-based wealth adviser, told USA Today.
"It's horrible, but I do not have a will," a single mother in her 50s from West Texas told LifeZette. "I don't have much other than my house, and that would go to my daughter. But is that even true, or would it end up in probate?" She paused. "And what does 'probate' even mean?"
"If you're [talking about] baby boomers, they are looking at what their cash flow will be in retirement," Carol Kroch, managing director of wealth and philanthropic planning at Wilmington Trust in Wilmington, Delaware, told USA Today. "Can they do the things they want to do? Can they retire? Can they keep the house? They are not focused on death."
This financial "avoidance" affects younger people, too. Just one in five millennials has a will.
Just one in five — 20 percent. That means 80 percent of millennials haven't bothered to think about their future. That's especially troubling as more and more millennials start families.
Millennials say they "just haven't gotten around to it," and "don't have enough assets to leave to anyone," Katie Roper, vice president of Caring.com, told LifeZette.
"I've heard people refer to the 'young invincibles' when talking about health care," Roper said. "Many young people believe, on some level, that nothing bad will ever happen to them. I think that's why they're not getting around to it. Why worry about a will if you're going to live forever?"
Young Americans are generally unconcerned with their own mortality, which perpetuates the misconception that a will isn't necessary until later in life. In fact, 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.
But it's time for both boomers and millennials to wake up. The reality is that no one can predict the future. So if you're an adult with dependents, loved ones, or assets, you need an estate plan, advised Roper.
Where There's a Will …
Start with the will. If you have a young child and you and your spouse both die without having a will in place, it would be up to the state and the courts to decide what happens to your assets.
"Most likely [your assets] would eventually be given to your child, but it might take a year for the case to make its way through the court system, and the person who had guardianship of your child would be saddled with large attorney's fees, as well as having to spend hours in courts and lawyers' offices, in order to work through the process," Roper explained. "And the court might decide that someone else should get the asset instead of your child."
Have a Health Care Power of Attorney
Still, good estate planning goes beyond just having a will. What would happen if you had a catastrophic illness or accident? Who would make health care decisions on your behalf or have access to your private health information? Who would make financial decisions on your behalf or have access to your finances?
A medical power of attorney gives someone authority to make medical decisions on your behalf, if you are still living but unable to make your own decisions — if you are unconscious, for example, or mentally incapacitated.
"If you are married, you may not need a health care power of attorney because your spouse will be granted that authority automatically," Roper noted. "If you and your partner are not legally married, however, and you get in a car accident, the hospital couldn't even let your partner know that you are a patient there, let alone grant that person authority to make medical decisions for you without proper legal documents."
Broadly speaking, the complexity and cost of setting up a will or living trust depends on how complex your circumstances and assets are.
"If you have no minor children and few assets, you can probably complete the entire process by downloading a few templates from the internet and then stopping by your bank to get them notarized," Roper said.
A qualified lawyer can draft a simple will and power of attorney for less than $1,000 in many cases. The legalese can be somewhat daunting, Roper said. But she can't stress the importance enough. "It takes about an hour to have all your paperwork in order. Just get around to it."