57% Of Americans Don't Have Wills

A new Bankrate national poll says that 57% of Americans don’t have wills, even though 76% of respondents said they considered it an important thing to have. This writer doesn’t have a will, but then again, I don’t have kids, and my “heirlooms” are all made by consumer electronic companies. What about people with offspring? It’s even worse: 69% of parents with kids under the age of 18 don’t have wills, even though 88% of them say it’s important.

The poll also says that “among those with a will, 71 percent used an attorney to help draft it; 14 percent wrote their own, 7 percent used software, and 2 percent bought documents from an office supply store. 6 percent of the respondents didn’t specify.”

Remember, if your estate is uncomplicated, you can slap together your own with $40, a few hours of free time this weekend, and some downloadable software. Well, maybe wait until the next weekend so you don’t ruin the mood over Thanksgiving.

“57% of Americans Do Not Have a Will” [CNN Money]
(Photo: Getty)

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  1. Crazytree says:

    85.734% of americans don’t need wills.

    intestacy laws in your state will take care of your estate, unless you don’t want to give the property to your family.

    in many cases, a poorly-drafted will can create more problems than it rectifies.

  2. Trai_Dep says:

    Can’t I simply write, “I give everything, without reservation, to Joe.” Sign in in front of three witnesses and be done with it?

    (Guess which part of the 60% I fit in)

  3. krunk4ever says:

    facts that weren’t included in the summary above:

    Bankrate poll: This national random-digit-dialed phone study of 1,010 adults 18 or older was conducted for Bankrate by GfK Roper Public Affairs & Media. The surveys were conducted from October 26, 2007 through October 28, 2007. The sample was weighted by demographic factors including age, gender, race, education and census region to ensure reliable and accurate representation of adults in U.S. households. The margin of error for the survey is +/- 3 percentage points.

  4. brjndr says:

    TRAI_DEP, you can write a simple will and have the witnesses sign it as well. Check the laws of your state to figure out how many witnesses are required, it varies from state to state.

    I’d still recommend a lawyer, or at very least printed fill-in-the-blank will (which still should be properly witnessed).

  5. jackthatdork says:

    Intestacy laws are usually a better option for people unless they own significant assets. Holographic wills (aka written without attorneys)are often a disaster.

    To the earlier comment, no, you can’t simply write “I give everything, without reservation to Joe.” Laws re: holographic wills are different in every state – but generally they do not need to be witnessed, and must be in the testator’s handwriting.

  6. mconfoy says:

    @krunk4ever: Yes, it would be of more interest if the survey was kept to those who actually have the potential need for a will — married, significant assets, etc. Nevertheless, people don’t have them that should (I was one of those until I got a financial planner that told me to pull my head out of my ass) or perhaps too many people only have debt in their future?

  7. BigNutty says:

    Be careful of do-it-yourself Will forms. My Mother’s was not legal for some reason. The cost of probate was much more expensive than having a lawyer draw up a will, especially because it was a large estate.

  8. pda_tech_guy says:

    I really dont mean to solicit to anyone here, but has anyone heard of prepaid legal? Its kind of like insurance, for when you need a lawyer. You pay a monthly fee (36.00 in california) and you get access to an attorney 24/7, they will represent you in court, they will send out letters to those bad companies *coughs* on your behalf, and they will throw in a free will. You dont have to keep the membership to keep the will.

  9. iamme99 says:

    Why do I need a will? I am immortal and will never die!

  10. aikoto says:

    What about the advice to leave your belongings in a trust with your partner as the sole executor? I heard there are significant tax advantages with this.

  11. Rusted says:

    @pda_tech_guy: Kinda like a legal HMO? Yeah, heard about it, in spam though.

    Not like it’s going to be “my” problem. I’ll do it though just so the survivors can party.

  12. BrodskyLaw says:

    @pda_tech_guy: Prepaid legal is a scam created only to enrich their reps, who are rewarded for recruiting more reps. Ever wonder why this scheme spawns so many spam emails (not as many as penis enlargement of course) and get-rich-quick-type ads? It’s a kind of pyramid scheme, nothing more.

  13. HappyCustomer says:

    @pda_tech_guy: I had a plan like that thru Montgomery Wards in the 80’s. It was decent. Only remember using it to buy a house, but it was a good experience. I don’t remember what it cost, but it had to be reasonable or I could not have afforded it at that time.

  14. anatak says:

    Intestacy laws? You have got to be kidding. Why on earth would I want the state to decide who gets what? Some of those law are pretty nuts. Thats a terrible plan. Anyone with with family, friends, or assets that they care about needs a will.

    Chris is exactly right. For $40 you can get a state-specific, simple will. The only reason to go through an attorney is if your financials are more complex than you can handle. Otherwise, the attorney will likely send you an equivalent to that $40 form and have you fill it out. Difference is, they’ll charge you $400.

    You also need a living will or ‘advance health care directive’ or something like that. Its the form that says, “Pull/do not pull the plug on me”. Do you want to live out your days as a vegetable being kept alive by machines? The Schiavo family can tell you how big of a deal that decision is.

    If you have a family, there is no excuse not to have a will, living will, and term life insurance.

    @pda_tech_guy: If you do the math, for most people, pre-paid legal is a rip. You’re right that its like insurance – insurance you likely don’t need. Cancer insurance, accidental death insurance, pet insurance, pre-paid legal. They’ll sell you anything. I can find much better uses for $36 per month.

  15. quail says:

    If you have any interest as to who gets what after your death, then you do need a will. Yea, the state will take over things once you’re gone but things of sentimental value probably will not get to the person you want to have it.

    A poorly made will IS worse than no will at all. But don’t assume that because a will is drawn up by a lawyer it is a good will. My parent’s will was basically void because the lawyer never put in a section dealing with the both of them dying at the same time. (Hmm, which was something that my will creator software does.) All the will did was to saddle two executives to a nightmare.

    To save money — basically the lawyer’s time — will creation software or online templates are worthwhile to work upon. Show up at the Probate Lawyer’s office with the completed documents and an honest lawyer should only need an hour or two to make any necessary changes. (My lawyer found no need for changes in mine.)

    Someone with large amounts of assets, which kicks in the death tax in the U.S.A., needs to speak with an estate planner and not rely on a will to adequately transfer assets after death.

  16. dirtymoney says:

    meh, I dont have any REAL valuables, I have no kids or wife. All I have is my life’s savings & that account has a beneficiary incase I die.

  17. @aikoto: “What about the advice to leave your belongings in a trust with your partner as the sole executor? I heard there are significant tax advantages with this.”

    Only if your estate is quite significant and in certain forms OR you live in certain states*. (And frequently you will prefer other tax-advantaged trusts, such as generation-skipping trusts, over a living trust with your spouse as sole trustee. It’s only rarely the preferred mode. Occasionally, leaving aside all tax and probate considerations, they are the correct decision because of health issues.) However, there are significant advantages to the LAWYER for drafting these, since they’re often quite spendy.

    Most people, in most states, do not have a large enough estate to trigger state or federal estate taxes (ALWAYS CHECK, they change!), so there are no significant advantages to the trust set-up, and for an estate too small to trigger estate taxes, it typically costs quite a bit more to set up a trust than to do a straight-up will. (Most states also allow you to pass quite significant assets to your spouse upon death without triggering taxes, so the spousal trust set-up is rather particularly silly for small estates.) There’s a reason late-night infomercial lawyers sell these as package deals.

    (FYI, these sorts of trusts are also sometimes sold as an illegal tax DODGE, typically to avoid income taxes; generally your income is paid to a “non-profit” trust that then disburses the income to trust beneficiaries. If someone is crowing about the massive tax savings of a particular trust, I’d check with an accountant who doesn’t have a fiduciary interest in selling you the trust. Be very, very clear on the EXACT tax consequences of your decision and use a competent tax professional! Even accidental tax fraud has unpleasant consequences!)

    *In most states, probating a will, going through the intestacy process, and terminating a trust all take ABOUT the same amount of time. (Assets may pass “automatically” in a trust, but you still have to get deeds changed, access to bank accounts, etc.) HOWEVER, if you live in certain states like Florida that because of large elderly populations have a HUGE probate burden and the probate courts are therefore slow, it may be significantly faster to use a trust. Clogged urban courts may also have slow probate, but check with attorneys who do probate in that city. In that case, the extra cost may be worth the saved time. (However, savvy will set-up could make the probate process relatively painless, even if slow, anyway.) In rural or smaller counties it’s almost never worth the trouble because there’s just never enough probate to clog the court.

    I do recommend (I’m an estate lawyer) that all parents, particularly all single parents, of minors have a will actually drawn up by an attorney. It’s like getting your kids vaccinated — a necessary protection against a disaster that is unlikely to occur. (And if you think about it that way, it doesn’t seem quite so morbid.) Assets, schmassets, but your children need to be protected and you should be the one naming guardians. If it’s done right, it should be “sturdy” enough to basically last until your children are grown — but with word processors today, changing a will because, say, the named guardian dies takes all of 10 minutes. (Plus re-executing, which is a bit time-consuming.) Updates should cost a fraction of the initial will.

    You can also do quite a bit of estate planning with simple asset title planning, such as joint bank accounts (passes to the joint holder on death, no problems), joint title (ditto), or Payable-on-Death (POD) bank accounts. Just be sure to check on what exactly it entails — your joint account holder can clean it out without a word to you, whereas a POD beneficiary can’t touch it until you die. These are also useful for last-illness planning (a joint account so a trusted relative can pay your bills when you’re hospitalized; a POD account to cover your funeral expenses if you haven’t pre-paid).

    Whew! Sorry for novel!

  18. @quail: “lawyer never put in a section dealing with the both of them dying at the same time.”

    YIKES! Did he miss the Tylenol-cyanide simultaneous death lawsuits in the early 80s???

    @anatak: “the attorney will likely send you an equivalent to that $40 form and have you fill it out.”

    I sit down with my clients and we discuss their goals, values, concerns, family issues, etc. An estate lawyer shouldn’t be an expensive form machine; ideally an estate lawyer should be aware of some of the “soft” issues relating to death (mostly family problems) and help you navigate not just the financial aspects but the emotional and familial aspects as well. An estate attorney who doesn’t bother to find out if there’s bad blood in the family, or a special-needs relative, or an adult child who’s jealous of her brother and will contest his executorship, or whatever, isn’t particularly more helpful than a computer program.

    An estate lawyer should also be able to do COMPLETE end of life planning (advance health-care directives, even funeral planning assistance) and provide a far wider variety of options than a computer program. I can not only write your living will, I can tell you which local hospitals are going to ignore it and I know which attorneys do the hospital’s living will work, which may speed up the entire affair if they do ignore it.

  19. Womblebug says:

    @Eyebrows McGee: Hey, kind of off topic but kind of not: We have wills done, have guardians selected, etc., but we are not sure how to find a trustworthy executor and/or trustee. We’ve got my dad listed for now (he’s an attorney and does this for some other people) but obviously that choice won’t last forever. I don’t want to hand all that over to some bank. What’s the best way to find someone that you won’t lose sleep at night over to handle this stuff?

  20. anatak says:

    @Eyebrows McGee:
    “I sit down with my clients and we discuss their goals, values, concerns, family issues, etc.”

    Thats great. At the time when we were doing our wills, we couldn’t find a lawyer willing to do what you describe for someone in our position. In every case, we were dealing with a paralegal, and would never even meet the attorney. Needless to say, they didn’t get our business. At the same time, we weren’t asking for the moon. Just a little bit of someone’s time, and some legal expertise. Oh well.

  21. kelptocratic says:

    Wow… I read that as “57% of Americans Don’t Have Wii’s”. I needs me coffee something bad.

  22. Trai_Dep says:

    @womblebug: Give either Eyebrows or myself complete control of your estate, of course!

    Or – sigh – cast about, word of mouth, what have you, for an attorney that does this sort of thing. But only if you’re a spoilsport.

  23. pda_tech_guy says:

    Just adding to the comments about prepaid-legal. I dont see it as a scam at all. (I have a membership) and even though the person who sold me the membership told me about it being a “business opportunity,” he seemed to respect my decission when I told him i wasnt into business opportunities. The membership has helped me alot. I mean, the will was free for one thing, that in itself pays for like a year of membership, and I have been represented a couple times in court. One in a lawsuit, (i was sued for a car accident, and won) and one time I got pulled over for speeding, and driving uninsured “i was between policies, uhum.”

  24. (Sorry, was AFK for several days at the parental homestead!)

    @womblebug: “What’s the best way to find someone that you won’t lose sleep at night over to handle this stuff?”

    Honestly, anyone who can file a 1040 (long form) can manage to probate a basic estate. It’s not DIFFICULT, it’s merely TEDIOUS and detail-oriented. The person I would pick would be someone you know to be extremely reliable, extremely fair (if you have multiple heirs), and, if you have minor children, deeply concerned for the welfare of your children. Reliable to actually get the work done. Fair because the problem that I see the most often is heirs to whom the process is opaque and they therefore feel shafted; IOW, if you have adult children, don’t pick the kid with the CPA, pick the kid that all your other kids think is the fairest mediator. And welfare of your children, that’s obvious. If they can’t probate the estate themselves, they can hire an attorney for help (estate pays), and it’s not a big deal. Friends and relatives are the obvious candidates, and keep in mind it’s EXTREMELY unlikely they’ll have to deal with it; you will almost certainly have adult children long before anyone has to worry about probating your will, and then they become the most obvious candidates.

    One other note, as you have guardians picked — I typically recommend that families at least consider having separate physical guardians and monetary trustees for their minor children. Orphaned children with money in trust often learn very quickly how to manipulate their guardians, and it’s much easier if the guardian can say, “I know you want a pony, but Uncle Joe is in charge of the trust and I can’t do anything about it!” (It also provides you with two people to look after your child’s interests, and drastically reduces the chance the guardian will manipulate the trust for his own benefit.) Of course you know your family best and many families are completely comfortable with having the same person in both roles.

    @anatak: “willing to do what you describe for someone in our position.”

    The economics make it difficult, particularly in large markets — although there’s no reason a paralegal couldn’t be excellent at handling both the “soft” and “hard” portions of estate planning (just as there’s no reason a nurse can’t be excellent at managing your health crisis while the doctor only comes in from time to time). It’s very hard to meet one’s overhead and provide affordable wills (affordable ANY legal services!) to middle-class families in major urban markets. I am lucky that I’m in a smaller market, and that I was able to structure my practice to tailor it towards those clients (largely because my husband has benefits).