Originally published: 2/18/21, updated 3/13/23
Everyone should have a will, whether we’re multibillionaires like Logan Roy on HBO’s hit-show Succession or ordinary folks. Yet a surprising number of Americans, including the ultra-wealthy, never get one.
According to a recent survey by Caring.com1, 67% of Americans had no estate plan. This is not just affecting the young – older adults are also less likely to have a will. Only 46% of those surveyed over 55 had any estate planning documents. Over 40% of those surveyed said it would take a medical concern to motivate them to get one.
Why you need an estate plan
The papers are full of stories of wealthy, famous people who died without properly preparing to protect their heirs. Tragically, Stephen ‘tWitch’ Boss ,DJ for “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” died by suicide without a will, forcing his wife to go to court to legally get control of half of their property and all of the royalties he left behind.
Remember Joe Robbie, founder of the Miami Dolphins football team, who passed away in 1990? His family ended up having to sell the franchise to pay a reported $47 million in estate taxes.
In another famous case, when the singer Prince died in 2016 and in the absence of a will, scores of people emerged with claims on his fortune. Outlandish stories included people claiming to be his (previously never heard of) wife, his child, his sibling, and distant relatives. The courts eventually awarded the estate to his sister and five half-siblings, but only after months of costly legal proceedings.
For some, these stories make wills and estate planning seem like they only apply to the very rich. But a will does more than make sure that your money is given to the right heir. It also might keep your spouse in the home that you shared together. It can ensure that your children are in the care of the person that you choose. And it can ensure that your life insurance is given to the right beneficiary.
Doing the right thing
All too often, people rely on others to “do the right thing.” But the right thing in your mind may be very different in the mind of a family member. Imagine you buy your first home with a deposit from your parents, which they say you need never pay back. Then you start a relationship they disapprove of. They may not have wanted you to pay the money back, but they may balk at the idea of leaving the house they helped pay for to your partner. Without a will, this could result in a legal wrangle that hurts all parties, at a time when they are grieving.
The majority of people just don’t get around to leaving a will or feel that they don’t have enough assets to leave to anyone, but the truth is that everyone needs a will or some legal document to lay out their wishes. It’s not enough to tell your partner what you want and hope that everyone else listens. It’s best for everyone if it’s clear so there can be no doubt.
A plan for the future
Making a will ensures that everyone knows your wishes, and it’s also the first step in the more comprehensive process of planning your estate.
Many of those who think they have no assets to leave forget that a moderately funded retirement account, some equity in a house, or a decent life insurance policy guarantee you’re worth more than you think.
It’s easy to put off a will, especially when we’re fit and healthy. Most of us don’t want to think of a time after we’re gone, but we must. Properly planning for our loved ones, with a guidance from your legal advisor, gives them peace of mind, the space to grieve, and the clarity to move on.
This article is provided for informational purposes only. Neither New York Life Insurance Company, nor its agents, provides tax, legal, or accounting advice. Please consult your tax, legal, or accounting professional before making any decisions.
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1Caring.com 2022 Wills and Estate Planning Study. https://www.caring.com/caregivers/estate-planning/wills-survey/