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Most Americans Lack Proper Estate Planning, Says New Survey


EAGAN, Minn., May 10 -- Most Americans don't have the essential legal documents needed for proper estate planning, such as wills and living wills, according to a new survey by the legal Web site ( ).

According to the survey, the majority of Americans -- 55 percent -- don't have a will to specify the handling of their estate after they die. Two- thirds of Americans -- 67 percent -- lack a living will in case they become incapacitated or terminally ill. In addition, those with a will often fail to keep the document updated.

The national survey questioned 1,000 American adults nationwide, with results accurate to plus or minus three percent.

"Having a proper estate plan provides direction about your wishes in the event you die or become incapacitated," said James Kosakow, an attorney in Westport, Conn., who specializes in estate planning. "Estate planning documents, including wills and living wills, need to be properly drawn up according to your particular circumstances, and should be reviewed by an attorney and kept updated as needed."


The survey found that only 44 percent of American adults have a will,

which specifies how assets are to be distributed and who is to care for minor children following a person's death. Without a will, it is often left to the courts and state law to determine the handling of a person's estate.

Even among the minority of Americans who do have a will, many fail to keep this vital legal document updated. Nearly forty percent of those with a will say they have not updated their will within the last five years or have never updated their wills.

"Without a will or a will that's properly updated," said Kosakow, "the distribution of your estate may not reflect your wishes. In addition, your survivors may be saddled with unnecessary estate taxes, and the settling of the estate through the courts may be expensive and time-consuming."

"If there's been a significant change in your assets or your family situation, such as marriage, divorce, or new children or grandchildren, your will should be reviewed and updated. In addition, the federal estate tax exemption is being increased in stages through 2009, affecting how some estate plans need to be structured to avoid estate taxes."

Living Wills

The survey also found that only 33 percent of Americans have a living will, spelling out whether they want life-sustaining medical care in case they are terminally ill or incapacitated.

A living will is a document in which a person can provide instructions in advance as to what medical treatments he or she wishes to receive in the event of terminal illness or permanent unconsciousness. Together with a health care proxy or durable power of attorney document, it allows a designated party such as a loved one, to withhold medical care or even food and water under certain circumstances. In the absence of a living will, medical care decisions are generally made by a spouse, guardian, health care agent or a majority of parents and children. If family members and doctors have difficulty deciding on medical care, the matter could be decided in court.

The Bottom Line

"Maintaining a comprehensive estate plan can be complicated," said Kosakow, "often involving wills, trusts, living wills, durable powers of attorney and financial planning. But it is essential for making sure that your wishes are carried out at the proper time, and that your family knows what to do in those circumstances."

Additional information on estate planning can be found at free legal information Web sites such as, the most-visited legal Web site. The site offers extensive, easy-to-follow information and the largest online legal directory for finding an attorney in your area who specializes in estate planning.

NOTE TO EDITORS: The national survey used a representative sample of 1,000 adults nationwide, with a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points, and was conducted by Ipsos Public Affairs.

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