Last Wishes: Half of Americans Have Written Wills

by Linda Lyons, Education and Youth Editor

Most don't have living wills

Death, like taxes, is certain. And like taxes, it's one of the least pleasant topics to contemplate, let alone discuss with others. Even so, a recent Gallup Poll* indicates half of American adults have faced up to the inevitable and written a last will and testament, directing where or to whom their worldly assets should be distributed when they leave this one.

That leaves the other half of Americans at risk of dying intestate -- meaning their assets will be distributed not according to their wishes, but those of their state of residence.

Gallup recontacted some of our survey respondents to ask why they haven't written a will. "I just haven't gotten around to it," says Dave, a 37-year-old respondent from North Dakota. Other reasons are even simpler. "I don't have a will because I don't have very much," says Nilda, a 52-year-old Florida woman. "We've had some recent deaths in the family so I'm sure my family would be able to settle who gets what amicably. Now if my circumstances should change," she adds, "if I won the lottery, for instance -- then I would definitely write a will."

Age Is a Factor

It's no surprise that older Americans are far more likely than younger Americans to have a will. Seven in 10 (71%) respondents aged 50 and older have a will, compared with 37% of people under 50.

Providing for one's loved ones is among the most important reasons to make a will. Married people (54%) are somewhat more likely than those who aren't married (44%) to have wills. "My husband and I travel together frequently," says Ann, a 40-year-old respondent from Colorado. "Eight years ago -- around the time our third child was born -- we decided we had better take care of it just in case of an accident. We wrote a will and appointed a guardian for the children at the same time."

Living Wills

The publicity surrounding the death of Terri Schiavo, the Florida woman whose feeding tube was removed after years of legal wrangling between her husband and parents, spurred a flurry of interest in living wills -- directives to family and medical staff about end-of-life wishes. Schiavo was emblematic of the majority of Americans (59%) who do not have a living will dictating in writing exactly how much or how little intervention they would prefer if they were in a similar medical situation. Forty percent of Americans have living wills**.

Edward Kahn, a New Jersey attorney whose law firm concentrates in wills and trusts, says he expected to see interest in living wills increase after the Schiavo case, and was surprised when his office didn't have that experience. "It's an important document to have … I find that most of my clients do not want to be kept alive artificially if there's no hope," Kahn says. "Not only do they not want to burden their families, they don't want to live if they can't define their own choices."

As with having wills that deal with the distribution of assets, age is also a factor in whether people have living wills. The tendency to have a living will increases with age. Nineteen percent of 18- to 29-year-olds say they have living wills, as do 32% of 30- to 49-year-olds, 46% of 50- to 64-year-olds, and 67% of those 65 and older.

Dave has no plans to ever write a living will. "The Terri Schiavo case actually lessened my interest in living wills," he says. "It became apparent to me that family members can contest anything if they want to. Here in North Dakota, we can donate organs on our driver's licenses, but if the family doesn't want to do it, they don't have to donate them. So I feel it's a waste of time to write it all down. I've just told everyone what I want and hope they will honor my wishes."

Bottom Line

With so many Web sites devoted to easy, do-it-yourself wills -- either free or for a nominal fee -- there is really no excuse for not recording your final wishes in writing if you really want to. But many Americans may be deterred by the squeamishness of having to think about their own deaths. Kahn says his clients almost always make excuses for not taking care of writing a will sooner. "But people just don't want to deal with it," he says. "It's a difficult thing for anyone to have to think about."

*Results are based on telephone interviews with 489 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted May 2-5, 2005. For results based on the sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±5 percentage points.

**Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,005 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted May 2-5, 2005. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.

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