Only four in 10 U.S. adults have a will or living trust, according to a study conducted in 2019 by Caring.com, an online destination for those seeking information and support as they care for aging parents, spouses and other loved ones. The study showed 81% of those aged 72 or older and 58% of baby boomers (ages 53-74) have estate-planning documents, as compared to their younger counterparts.

Unfortunately, the study revealed 78% of millennials (ages 18-36) and 64% of Generation X (ages 37-52) do not have a will. The top two reasons given by the people surveyed for not making such preparations are "haven't gotten around to it" (47%), and "don't have enough assets to leave to anyone" (29%).

No matter the reason, not planning ahead for one's eventual death leaves loved ones behind to make important and difficult decisions during a time of intense grief. And, if a will is not in place, the government will step in and make decisions for the deceased. Making the time now to establish a will, a health care power of attorney and a power of attorney for property, will take a great deal of pressure off loved ones and simplify the process should you become ill, incapacitated or die an untimely death.

Sarah Delano Pavlik of Delano Law Offices in Springfield practices estate planning law. She gives the example, "If an unmarried person dies without a will, her assets will pass to her heirs-at-law.  Under Illinois law, that means first to parents and siblings. That may not be what the person wants. A will would be advisable because a will would name an executor to administer the estate, which simplifies the process."

Even if the deceased is married and dies without a will, although the assets and children go to the living spouse, the state will still intervene to make sure assets are distributed according to the law.

Pavlik explains, "If a resident of Illinois dies without a will and there are assets worth more than $100,000 that do not have a named beneficiary or are not held in joint tenancy, a probate will need to be opened." Probate is the legal process that makes sure property and possessions are given to rightful heirs and that all debts and taxes are paid in full.

Pavlik says, "The process is very similar to what happens when a person does have a will, but the court appoints the administrator to handle the estate.  Illinois law provides that the spouse is to be appointed as administrator, or, if there is no spouse, the decedent's children." Pavlik notes, "If the children cannot get along, having all of them serve as administrators can be very difficult."

Some may think it is out of their budget to hire an attorney to write a will, but Pavlik says the cost of a will, like all legal matters, can vary greatly, "depending largely on how the decedent wants her property to pass." If a person is on a tight budget and has no other option, fill-in-the-blank forms are available on the internet. However, Pavlik frequently sees serious errors in do-it-yourself wills and said, "Unfortunately, those errors do not come to light until the person has died and may not be fixable."

A health care power of attorney is a document separate from a will that names a person as your agent to make your medical decisions if you cannot make them yourself. It also serves as a living will and states whether or not you would want to be kept alive on life support. "It is a document every adult should have," said Pavlik. The health care power of attorney document can be found on the internet, a physician's office or a hospital.

Pavlik strongly suggests that all adults have a power of attorney for property which names a person to handle your financial affairs if you cannot do so. Pavlik says, "The power of attorney must be signed while the person is competent. For example, once a person has Alzheimer's or has had a stroke, it may be too late."

While it may not be pleasant to think about, if you should become incapacitated or die suddenly, your heirs will be glad that you took the time to make a plan and express your wishes in advance.

Holly Whisler is a freelance writer from Springfield who is currently in the process of working on her own will and power of attorney.

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