Here's the first step.
Death. Like taxes, it’s inevitable. And like taxes, it’s one of the things we go to great lengths to avoid thinking about.
Surveys show that only 42 percent of Americans have faced up to it and written their last will and testament. For millennials—or adults between the ages of 18 to 36—that number is even lower, about 20 percent, according to a study conducted by Caring.com last year, a website that provides resources on healthcare, law, and finance for older Americans and caregivers.
“Death is a difficult subject to think about, especially when you’re younger,” says Tim Sullivan, vice president of Caring.com. “It’s the same way that a lot of people don’t save for retirement— they don’t think about the long-term. But there’s a significant benefit, and not a lot of cost, to addressing your estate planning needs early on.”
People are more likely to have important estate planning documents, including a will, as they head into their 70s or accumulate more assets, Sullivan says. But just because you’re young and broke doesn’t mean you should put this off.
A large part of estate planning is actually about taking stock of the things that make your life meaningful, says Betsy Trapasso, a former hospice worker and an end-of-life guide based in Los Angeles. “People want to be treated with dignity and respect when they are approaching death.”
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That’s why conversations about end-of-life involve outlining your wishes for the kind of medical care you’d want in case you’re in an accident or can’t speak for yourself, as well as designating who’ll execute your wishes, and where or how you’d like your worldly assets to be distributed when you die, she says.
When asked, most people say they’d like to die peacefully, and preferably in their sleep. But the reality is that a large number of Americans die in hospital ICUs, in car crashes, and even due to gun violence.
Having a will ensures that you’re prepared for the unexpected and that your loved ones are taken care of after you die, says Tatia Barnes, an estate planning attorney in New York. “It helps ease the burden on them [if something happens],” she says.
If you die without a will, you die “intestate” and your assets are distributed according to state law. While the details of intestate succession vary, they generally follow a hierarchy of survivors. In New York, for example, your assets are divided among your spouse and children, Barnes says. If there are none, your parents, then your siblings, and then more distant relatives may be entitled to all of your estate. And the process of distributing your estate to these survivors can be drawn out over several months—sometimes years.
“You leave behind people who’re going to be dealing with your death for a long time. And we know that when people have gone through the process of being prepared, having conversations, that the survivors who are left behind cope better psychologically,” says Brian Carpenter, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Washington University in Saint Louis. There are distinct advantages for both the survivors and the person who’s dying, he says.
Of course, knowing the benefits of doing something doesn’t always translate to action. “It’s hard for human beings to think very far into the future. So to expect a 20-year-old or a 30-year-old to think about what most likely won’t happen until they’re 70 or 80—that’s just cognitively and psychologically difficult,” Carpenter says. Add to that the fact that getting older and dying is usually associated with negative images, and it becomes even harder for young adults to contemplate planning an estate, he says.
Big life events, like getting married, having children, or acting as a caregiver for a loved one, are often the factors the finally motivate people to write up a will, Barnes says.
You don’t necessarily need an attorney to write your will. Several online services and software programs offer do-it-yourself options for between $15 and $80. If you don’t have a lot of property, these services can offer a basic template for reviewing your assets, picking your heirs, and selecting an executor who’ll carry out the terms of your will. However, most DIY solutions don’t have room for complicated real-life situations, and if they aren’t executed properly, may not be legally binding.
Barnes recommends shopping around for an attorney. Most estate planning lawyers offer some type of free consultation to make sure they understand your requirements and see if you are comfortable with them before they start drafting your documents. And preparing your assets in advance can also help rein in attorney’s fees. That includes insurance policies, retirement accounts, bank accounts, other income sources, debts, a list of your social media accounts, pets, and people—or charities—you plan on naming your beneficiaries, Barnes says.
A specialized estate attorney can draft a simple will for $1,000 to $2000. Many, including Barnes, offer to broader estate planning as part of a “package” to cover all your bases. That means writing an advanced directive (or living will) for your medical care, designating a medical power of attorney (or healthcare proxy) for situations beyond the living will, a financial power of attorney (or executor for your last will and testament), and funeral planning.
Once your legal documents are ready, you’ll usually need two witnesses to sign them, as well as a notary public to make them legally binding. If your assets or relationships change significantly, as you get older, you can always amend your will with a “codicil,” or just make a new will, revoking the old one.
Experts have varying opinions on how to safely store your final documents. Barnes says she recommends people use more caution rather than less. “I believe that a last will and testament should be kept in a safe deposit box where it can’t be accessed except by court order.” Then a family member can’t access and destroy your will, she says. But you should still tell someone where your will is—after all, it’s part of having a more open discussion about death.
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