Across all generations, most Americans have neglected a major financial step in their lives: They haven’t taken the time to make a last will and testament.
A 2017 survey by Caring.com found that only 4 in 10 Americans have made a wills or a living trust. That number is even higher for parents with young children: Only 36 percent of those with dependents under the age of 18 have a will.
Even more tellingly, the majority of millennials have not taken the time to make a will. According to the same survey, 78 percent of people in Gen Y don’t have an estate plan in place.
We get it. It’s not pleasant to face growing old and dying. But this is a serious problem. What’s more, people now have more assets than they used to, such as digital assets, that are harder to track when their life ends.
Here are five reasons why even millennials need to write a will.
While many millennials may feel like they don’t have significant assets to leave behind, that’s often not quite true. Do you have electronics? A car? A mortgage? Retirement accounts? A checking or savings account?
Wills can also control the disposition of digital assets like websites, domain names or cryptocurrency. They can even govern intangible assets like ownership of a song you wrote or brand you created, says Benjamin Sullivan, a Certified Financial Planner, an Enrolled Agent and a client service and portfolio manager with Palisades Hudson Financial Group in Austin, Texas.
Some millennials are already 38 years old now. They make up an increasingly large percentage of those having children and buying property, says David Stern, a Long Island City lawyer who conducts financial and estate planning. In fact, 17 million millennial women are now mothers, according to the Pew Research Center.
Even younger people who are in good health need proper estate planning documents, says Sullivan.
“A will provides you with the ability to control who receives your assets upon your death and who will serve as guardian if you have children,” Sullivan says.
In New York, if you die without a will, your spouse gets the first $50,000 of your estate and the rest is split 50/50 between your spouse and your children, he says. Since minors can’t inherit property directly, the court has to appoint a guardian for the inheritance itself. That person will have to petition the court to use the money, and the child will get unrestricted access to the inheritance when they turn 18. (If you don’t want that to happen, you might want to create a trust.)
Naming a guardian allows you to help determine who’ll take care of your child. It’s a good idea to discuss this decision with the people you’d like to name as the guardian. During this conversation, make sure they’re willing and able to take on the role. After all, this person could still decline the role after you’re gone, or a court could determine that your choice is unfit. Having these conversations beforehand might help avoid those situations.
Also note that the legal guardian you’ve named in your will only comes into play if all existing legal guardians (for example, both of your child’s living parents) pass away.
More millennials are becoming homeowners. The Accel + Qualtrics MillennialStudy 2017 found that 53 percent of millennials owned a home.
Whether or not there’s a will, a person’s estate pays any outstanding debts he or she had while alive, including mortgages.
“Having a will makes the payment of debts and distribution of assets much clearer, easier and faster,” Stern says. That’s “because a specific person, the executor, is named to have the authority to fulfill these obligations.”
Without a will, the process takes much longer. Someone needs to be appointed to administer the estate and it takes longer for the court to provide that person with the authority to act. “In the meanwhile, bills accumulate. Debt holders, including mortgage lenders, are still trying to get paid and may take action to foreclose on property if mortgage obligations are ignored,” he says.
The number of millenials who choose not to get married is increasing: The Pew Research Center reports that this generation is three times as likely to never get married as their grandparents. Even the ones choosing to tie the knot are waiting until they are older. The average age at marriage has increased to 29 for women and 31 for men, according to the The Knot 2017 Real Weddings Study.
As more people opt to live together and not get married, having a will is even more vital. Dying without a will is especially problematic for unmarried couples that live together and contribute to the same bills and purchases.
In the absence of a will that clearly states the division of property, the property will be divided among the decedent’s relatives, said Robert Johnson, a finance professor at the Heider College of Business at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. That means that, even if you and your partner have blended aspects of your financial lives, you wouldn’t receive any help with rent or your shared financial obligations if he or she passed.
Think about the brands many people associate with millennials: Facebook, Gmail, iTunes, Amazon, Spotify, Squarespace, Pinterest, Instagram, Hulu, Netflix and more. While the ownership of movies and music through iTunes may not be a priority for your estate planning, they can pose a unique problem.
Digital assets are subject to a different set of rules due to federal anti-hacking laws, Stern says. The laws effectively make it a crime to access someone's phone or computer without authorization, even if they’re dead.
“When a loved one passes away, the easiest way to learn what investments they have, what bills they pay, and what online subscriptions or accounts they hold is through their email, which cannot be accessed without authorization,” he says. “Millennials need to consider this and find an attorney who understands digital assets and how to plan properly to give someone the authority to access this content and deal with this property.”
Making all of these decisions ahead of time will not only make the grieving process easier for your family and friends, it will also spell out your expectations and wishes. Dying is not a pleasant topic to discuss with loved ones, but you'll be glad you did.
Fabric exists to help young families master their money. Our articles abide by strict editorial standards.
This material is designed to provide general information on the subjects covered. It is not, however, intended to provide any specific legal advice or to serve as the basis for any decisions.
We are not a law firm, are not licensed to practice law in any jurisdiction and do not provide any legal advice. If you do need legal advice for your specific situation, you should consult with a licensed attorney and/or tax professional.
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