Americans either don't want to face their own mortality, or they're just indifferent to the financial futures of their loved ones.
Harsh words? Maybe. But the fact is that at least half of U.S. adults (and probably more) are doing a lousy job planning their financial affairs, and especially their wills, after they slip the surly bonds of Earth and pass away.
That after a new study from BMO Wealth Management shows that 52% of survey respondents don't have a formal estate plan, and that 25% of married Americans say only one spouse knows where key estate planning documents - like wills and powers of attorney - are stored.
Additionally, the kids aren't all right when it comes to discussing estate planning and wills with their elderly parents, even as 40% deemed the distribution of their parents' estates as "unfair."
Add it all up, and nobody in the household seems to be on that same page, estate planning-wise, in the majority of cases across the U.S.
"In my experience, the primary reason individuals do not get a will isbecause they think you have to be rich in order to reap the benefits of awill," says David Engelhardt, a trans-national attorney and founder of Engelhardt Law in New York City.
Engelhardt, like many family financial advisors these days, feels it's his role to step in and spur clients to action.
"When working with friends and family, I always ask what will happen to your children in a worst-case scenario," he says. "Let's face it, many of us have either crazy parents or crazy in-laws. If that is the case, having a will is vital for children who might end up with their futures in the hands of someone, who is, shall we say kindly, less than ideal. For parents, it's a no-brainer: protect your kids, get a will."
A perceived lack of assets isn't the only reason Americans ignore their wills and estates, other financial experts say.
"Besides the fact they think wills aren't necessary because they don't have a lot of money, people are afraid of the potential costs, and people aren't comfortable thinking about their own deaths," notes Ben Birken, a financial planner with Woodward Financial Advisors in Chapel Hill, N.C.
Like Engelhardt, Birken believes the "best way" to encourage people to get moving on their will is to remind them that without one, they're leaving some of the most important decisions in the hands of a judge based on the rules of the state where they reside. "Some folks are comfortable letting the government decide how their estate should be settled," he admits. "But most aren't - once they realize that's going to be the outcome."
For example, Birken points out that wills do more than determine "who gets your stuff."
"For parents of young children, your will states who you'd like to serve as the guardian of your kids if you die," he states. "If you would rather a family friend or particular relative serve as the legal guardian of your kids instead of your older parents or worse a relative whom you most certainly don't want taking care of your kids, you should really get started on your will."
Perhaps the best way to get lax estate planners motivated to take action is to shock them with the huge financial hit they'll take by not having a will, and not having a solid estate plan.
"This is a topic I absolutely harp on my clients about," says John Knolle, a money manager with Saranap Wealth Advisors, LLC in Walnut Creek, Calif. "The most motivating factor is to simply tell people in monetary terms (and not percentages) how much it's going to cost them to settle their estate if it is subject to probate. "Instead of 5%, I work it out and say you're giving the state $50,000 of your $1 million estate, because you don't have a plan in place."
"I ask them, instead of a buying your daughter the new car she needs,you'd rather give it to the state?" he adds. "This question seems to wake people up and get them motivated to put a plan in place."
That's what financial advisors should strive for when looking to light a fire under their clients, estate planning-wise. Once Americans see the light, and see how much money is at stake between them and Uncle Sam, they'll figure out that when there's a will - there really is a way.