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Americans “Unwilling” to Discuss Wills

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Do you know if your parents have estate planning documents? And if so, are you aware of the whereabouts of the documents?

A March 2015 survey of American adult children completed by Princeton Survey Research Associations International looked for the answers to these and similar estate planning questions. The survey indicates what elder law attorneys often experience – for many clients it is understandably tough to discuss estate planning documents with their family. The discussion brings up what most of us don’t want to think about, our death.

In the survey 15.8 percent of adult children said that they did not know if their parents currently had estate planning documents, such as a will or living trust. Even for those that knew their parents had these documents, the same survey resulted in a little more than half (54.2%) of adult children not knowing the whereabouts of their parents’ will or living trust documents.

In Pennsylvania, if a person does not have a will or the will cannot be located, the beneficiary(ies) of the estate are determined by statute. Additionally, without a will or when a will is missing or cannot be located, those individuals who can petition to serve to administer the estate is also dictated by Pennsylvania statute. The person or persons receiving inheritance by statute may not be those who are or would be listed in your will. The person or persons wrapping up your affairs may have not been your first, second, or even third choice.

If a will cannot be located or is lost, it is presumed that the person did not have a will or that the will was destroyed. Original wills can be kept in many places. Common protected locations include attorney’s offices, safes, safe deposit boxes, and filing cabinets. While these secure spaces are logical places for original wills to be stored, we realize decisions are not always logical, particularly when parents may be suffering from dementia. Wills are often discovered (or in some cases likely go undiscovered) in more “original” spots, including under a mattress or bed, in a refrigerator, among stacks of mail and bills, or in a car glove box. Even in today’s digital age a photocopy of a will does not suffice.

While the ideal situation is for a client to discuss his or her wishes regarding their estate, including assets, with trusted family there are situations where a client may not want to disclose detailed information. At a minimum, however, it is key to let trusted child(ren) or family member(s) know that a will exists and give instructions as to its secure location, in order for access to the document after your passing.

What can we take from this survey? Parents, assure your trusted child(ren) or family members that your estate documents are prepared, and if they aren’t prepared, meet with an elder law attorney to develop and properly execute them. Children, be supportive, understanding, and willing to have difficult conversations with your parents.

Parents, children, and/or close family members need to have these tough discussions to make sure that their estate will pass the way that they want. While talking about death is uncomfortable, not talking about it can cause far more stress for surviving family members and loved ones.

“Everyone knows they’re going to die, but nobody believes it. If we did, we would do things differently.”  – Mitch Albom, Tuesdays with Morrie

Results of the Princeton Survey Research Associates International survey