Last week, Merrill Lynch and Age Wave published findings from their new study – Leaving a Legacy: A Lasting Gift to Loved Ones. The study explores the importance of leaving a legacy to loved ones after death. I spoke to Kevin Hindman, Managing Director and National Trust Executive at Merrill Lynch, about the findings of the study and what readers should take away from it.
Nearly Half of Americans Over 55 Do Not Have a Will
The major takeaway is that nearly half of those over 55 have not yet created a will. To make matters worse, only 18 percent of people in that age range have all of the recommended legacy plan essentials: a will, a health care directive, and durable power of attorney.
When people think about estate planning, they probably mainly think about the need for a will. However, that is not the only important piece. A health care directive and durable power of attorney are necessary in case you get sick or injured and are unable to make decisions for yourself. Having these in place ensures that you will have an advocate and your wishes will be followed.
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They Believe They Should Have Their Affairs In Order By 50
Despite the above finding, there is a widely held belief that one should have their affairs in order by age 50. The disconnect was particularly striking, said Hindman. Perhaps it is because most people want to be remembered for more than just the money they may be leaving behind. In fact, 69 percent say they most want to be remembered for memories shared with their loved ones. Hindman had more thoughts about the reasoning, which is discussed more below.
They Feel More Comfortable Talking About Death
Death has traditionally been a taboo topic that people try to avoid. However, according to this study, 90 percent of people are open to discussing end-of-life options with family and friends. This is an important and encouraging trend. However, the conversations need to be followed up by action.
They Worry They Won’t Have Advocates
Forty-three percent of respondents over 55 are worried that they lack an advocate to look out for their best interests toward the end of their life. During this time, priorities include deciding where you want to live, how you will be supported personally and financially, and what medical treatments you may or may not want. Americans say they want to remain in control of those matters late in life. This is especially important for women who, due to their higher life expectancies, are far more likely to outlive their spouses or partners. Having a health care directive and durable power of attorney will ensure that your wishes are known and followed.
Protecting Loved Ones Is A Priority
People say they want to avoid becoming a burden or causing financial hardships for their loved ones. In fact, they say that this is their number one objective. However, more than half admit that their lack of effective end-of-life planning could leave long-lasting problems, confusion, and emotional turmoil for their families.
What’s Holding People Back?
Since there is such a disconnect between feelings and actions, I asked Hindman what is holding people back from being prepared. “People don’t know where to start”, he said. They don’t know the basics about what they need and how to prepare the necessary documents. When you don’t know where to start, it’s hard to start at all. It’s easy to put it off and then never get to it until it’s too late.
It is also the case that most people do not experience the aftermath of estate planning, or lack thereof, until their own parents or other close family members die. It doesn’t feel like something that needs to be addressed until it influences people personally, and this experience is happening later and later in life as life expectancies rise.
Why Is This Important?
“A legacy is one of the best gifts we can give to those we love”, says Hindman. If you die without your affairs in order, you put your loved ones in a time-consuming, expensive, stressful process while they are already in mourning. It is an additional burden that they have to worry about. Without a clear estate plan in place, assets get sent to probate and a court decides how to divide them up. So not only does it take a long time to be sorted out, but your loved ones won’t know what you really hoped to do with those assets. Planning ahead will protect your loved ones from this additional stress.
But it’s not just the benefit to your loved ones, it also benefits you to plan ahead. Those who do have the three legacy essentials in place feel far more in control over their end-of-life affairs and are far more confident that their family could advocate for their needs. Those who don’t say that it keeps them up at night. If you have a clear directive in place, you can rest assured that your wishes will be carried out if you were to get sick or injured.
What Should People Do to Get Started?
Hindman’s main piece of advice here is to just get started. “It’s more important to actually take the action and modify as appropriate, instead of waiting until the perfect time.” The truth is, there will never be a perfect time to plan for death, so it’s better to start early and just make changes later. Otherwise, you might keep putting it off until it’s too late. How can you do that?
Talk to Family and Friends
Hindman said that talking to peers is a helpful place to start. As I’ve written before, it’s always important to talk about financial matters with friends so that you feel less alone and confused. It will be especially helpful if you talk to people who have lost parents and dealt with their estate afterward. They may even be able to refer you to a financial advisor or lawyer to start the process.
Work with a Financial Advisor
The next step is to meet with a financial advisor. An advisor can provide you with a reality check on the cost of long-term care, which most people underestimate or incorrectly assume will be covered by Medicare. An advisor could also offer some perspective on legacy planning as a whole, including ways a trust or life insurance can help you minimize taxes and manage assets for your loved ones.
Ask the Right Questions
Once you have spoken to your friends and family and met with a financial advisor, then you should talk to a lawyer. Find out what the estate laws are in your state of residence. Find out which steps you’ll need to take to complete the process. Once you feel comfortable that you understand the process, the lawyer can begin to create the planning documents for you.
The most important takeaway is that there is never a perfect time to take care of estate planning. It will never be an exciting activity to complete since it’s pretty morbid. However, you’ll feel much better once it’s done, and your loved ones will benefit more than you can imagine. So start having those conversations and taking the necessary steps. Don’t put it off any longer!
This article originally appeared on Maggie Germano.
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