August is national “Make a Will” Month. Maybe you weren’t aware of that because you don’t pay attention to the seemingly endless number of official month and day observations each year. But, based on what research tells us, it’s likely many of you don’t know because you haven’t given any thought to estate planning.
Citing a 2021 Gallup survey, the Congressional Budget Office says some 54% of Americans don’t have a will. According to that same Gallup survey, 80% of 18–29-year-olds don’t have a will and 64% of 30–49-year-olds haven’t taken the time to complete one either.
This is not good news, and it makes the message of “Make a Will” Month one worth taking to heart before we mentally move on to football season and fall holidays. It’s also a message employers and corporate HR departments should consider when building their employee benefits packages.
As an attorney specializing in estate planning, I’ve found that there’s a common misconception that creating wills, trusts and other end-of-life documents is only for the “ultra-wealthy” concerned about minimizing certain tax implications and maximizing asset protection. While the wealthy certainly need to think about estate planning, so do people across the economic spectrum.
Those with any assets at all – regardless of value – likely want to have a say-so in how they are dispersed after they pass on, and it’s equally likely they don’t want the legislature or judicial system making these decisions for them. Not only that, but everyone should make plans for their own financial and healthcare decisions in case they become incapacitated or, if they are a parent, for the appointment of guardians of minor children.
Without an estate plan, there can be unintended consequences that are shocking or even catastrophic. This can be extremely stressful for surviving spouses and family left behind and it can lead to legal disputes that last for years.
In Arkansas, if someone dies without a plan leaving behind a spouse as well as descendants, they leave one-third, or 33.33%, of their personal property and one-third, 33.33%, of real property (in the form of a life estate) to their spouse, while two-thirds, 66.66%, of personal property and two-thirds, 66.66%, of real property in the estate goes to their descendants. Being married with children is, of course, very common, so this outcome should be troubling to almost everyone. Nevertheless, it’s the law in Arkansas, absent an express estate plan to the contrary.
Further, if you have no estate plan, you’ve been married for less than three years and have no descendants, upon your passing your spouse will NOT get everything, even though you may want it that way. Half will go to your parents, siblings, nieces, nephews, or even to family members you’ve never even met. This “newlywed” circumstance is another extremely common situation where current laws simply defy conventional wisdom.
Another popular misconception about estate planning is that it’s prohibitively expensive or it will require a lengthy visit to an attorney’s office. These days, there are other, faster and more affordable options, including online or “virtual” options that can be accessed from the comfort of your home. Whatever approach you choose, you should opt to use a solution that includes the assistance of a licensed attorney. There is simply no substitute for engaging a licensed lawyer to help you navigate the murky waters of estate planning.
With respect to high costs, employers can help play a role in ensuring more people have affordable options for estate planning. With fall comes “open enrollment” season, when employers showcase a menu of benefits to their employees. For employees, it’s a time to assess their own personal risks and decide how to hedge against them by selecting various products such as: health, dental, vision, life insurance and so forth.
Employers can now choose to offer financial support or special discounts to help employees obtain attorney assisted, estate-planning products as part of this package of benefits. Indeed, this may be the best way to improve the frightful statistics I mentioned earlier.
If you have assets you want to leave in a specific manner; (ii) have minor children and want to control guardian appointments; or (iii) want to plan for decision-making upon incapacity, you need to act now.
So, don’t let “Make a Will Month” pass unnoticed. Get started with your planning today and encourage your employer to help you and others by adding attorney-assisted estate planning products to their standard selection of employee benefits.
Editor’s note: Patrick H. Murphy is the owner of Murphy Law Firm, PLLC. He is a founder and co-owner of SimpleWill, an online platform that makes creating wills and estate planning documents simple and affordable. The opinions expressed are those of the author.