Estate planning statistics to read before writing your will

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated estate planning activity in the U.S. But many Americans still remain without one.

by Siege Media, contributor to LegalZoom
updated January 06, 2023 ·  12min read

O​​​​​​nly 33% of U.S. adults have created estate planning documents. Learn which demographics are the most and least likely to have a will and why it's so important to share your end-of-life wishes with your loved ones.

man-filling-out-estate-planning-forms at kitchen counter

For those who haven't made a living trust or created any estate planning documents, 60% report not making any effort to start. Understandably, estate planning can be an uncomfortable topic to think about and even harder to talk about, but it is something you shouldn't postpone for too long.

Estate planning involves developing a comprehensive plan to help transfer your assets to the people or organizations of your choice upon your death. If you own any valuable assets—including a house, a car, or a bank account—or if there are people who depend on you, you should have an estate plan in place. Even if you're single with no dependents, a living trust and a will can ensure that you get to choose what happens to you and your possessions instead of the state.

Here are 49 estate planning statistics for a closer look at how common estate planning is among various demographics, why so many people don't have a will, the effects of pandemics and natural disasters on estate planning, and tips for making a will.

Must-read estate planning statistics

Fifty-six percent of Americans believe that estate planning is important, but only 33% of adults in the U.S. have documented their end-of-life plans. Of the estate plans made in 2021, 75.12% were wills, 18.78% were trusts, and 6.1% of people nominated a guardian for their young children.

Here are some other recent estate planning statistics from surveys of Americans:

1. 32% of Americans have a will. (Caring.com)

2. 41% of people between the ages of 18 and 34, and 34% of people between 35 and 54, have never discussed estate planning with anyone. (Caring.com)

3. American retirees expect to transfer more than $36 trillion to their families, friends, nonprofits, and additional beneficiaries over the next 30 years. (SeniorLiving.org)

4. 52% of people don't know where their parents store estate planning documents. (Cambridge Trust)

5. 60% of people without a will reported not taking any action to create a will and also haven't made a living trust or any other estate planning document. (Caring.com)

6. 18% of people don't know what an advance health care directive is. (Cambridge Trust)

7. 77% of pet owners designate a guardian for their furry friend. (Trust & Will)

8. 24% of those pet owners designate someone outside of their family to care for their animals. (Trust & Will)

9. 76% of people choose a family member to care for their pets. (Trust & Will)

10. Only 46% of will executors were aware of a will. (SeniorLiving.org)

11. 32% of adults under 35 said they wrote a will because of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Caring.com)

12. Americans who dealt with a serious case of COVID-19 are 66% more likely to have a will. (Caring.com)

13. 41% of Americans with loved ones who had a serious case of COVID-19 have a will, compared to 29% who had no close experiences with severe COVID. (Caring.com)

Estate planning statistics by demographic

Estate planning initiatives vary widely by age, race, and socioeconomic status.

Estate planning statistics by ageA bar graph shows what percentage of people in 4 age segments have a last will and testament.

It's best practice to begin planning your estate in your 30s and no later than your 40s. Younger people may feel that they have all the time in the world, they have nothing of value to leave behind, or that estate planning is unaffordable—but there are solutions for everyone.

14. 24% of 18- to 34-year-olds have a will. (Caring.com)

15. 27% of 25- to 54-year-olds have a will. (Caring.com)

16. 45% of people over the age of 55 have a will. (Caring.com)

17. 81% of people over the age of 72 have a will. (AARP)

Estate planning statistics by race

Will breakdown by race

Due in part to wealth gapswage inequalities, and a lack of access to financial literacy education, fewer BIPOC individuals invest in estate planning, a crucial step in accruing generational wealth. The newest findings in a 2022 study show that BIPOC individuals are also 14% less likely to have an estate plan than non-BIPOC individuals.

18. 29% of Black Americans have a will or estate planning document—a 12% increase from 2020. (Caring.com)

19. Black Americans have surpassed Hispanic Americans in estate planning since 2021. (Caring.com)

20. 35% of white adults have a will. (Caring.com)

21. 29% of Black adults have a will. (Caring.com)

22. 27% of Hispanic adults have a will. (Caring.com)

Estate planning by socioeconomic status

How wealth and socioeconomic status impact estate planning

Wealthy and educated Americans often have the most assets to leave their families but regularly postpone the estate planning process due to busy schedules and high stress.

23. 63% of people who make more than $80,000 per year cite not having “gotten around to it" or procrastinating as their primary reason for putting off estate planning. (Caring.com)

24. 42% of people who earn between $40,000 and $80,000 annually say they don't have time to write a will, while 32% believe they don't have enough assets to leave behind. (Caring.com)

25. 20% of people who earn less than $40,000 per year say that they don't have enough assets to leave, while 11% believe estate planning is too expensive. (Caring.com)

Inheritance planning statistics

While many heirs expect to receive a significant inheritance of $72,000 from their elders, that amount can vary heavily based on the benefactor's retirement savings, debts, education, and financial literacy throughout life.

26. The median inheritance among white families is $88,500. (Annuity)

27. The median inheritance among Black families is $85,000. (Annuity)

28. The median inheritance among Hispanic families is $52,000. (Annuity)

29. Nearly 70% of property owners plan to bequeath real estate to their heirs. (Bloomberg)

30. Parents with a college degree bequeath an average of $92,700 to their families. (The Federal Reserve)

31. Parents without a college degree leave behind an inheritance of $76,000 on average. (The Federal Reserve)

32. 15% of people were concerned that their future heirs wouldn't be able to pay for the taxes or maintenance of the assets they leave behind. (Bloomberg)

Estate planning procrastination statistics

Some people delay estate planning because they believe certain myths about wills—for example, that they are confusing or expensive. Others believe that they don't have enough assets to warrant writing a will.

33. 40% of American adults say they don't have a will because they haven't gotten around to it. (Caring.com)

34. 33% of American adults say they don't have a will because they don't have enough assets to leave to someone. (Caring.com)

35. 13% of American adults say they don't have a will because they believe it's too expensive to write one. (Caring.com)

36. 12% of American adults say they don't have a will because they don't know how to write one. (Caring.com)

Other estate planning statistics

Choose a person you trust and start discussing advance health care directives, end-of-life plans, and important asset management details. This is a crucial part of estate planning and guarantees that you and your loved ones aren't sidelined later in life.

A house sits beside a statistic about the number of American adults who deal with family conflicts when a loved one dies without a will.

37. Probate expenses can cost up to 10% of an estate. (LegalZoom)

38. Probating a will can take anywhere from a few months to several years. (LegalZoom)

39. 35% of adults in the U.S. say they or someone they know has experienced familial conflicts due to not having an estate plan or will in place. (WealthCounsel)

40. Americans over 55 cite easing the burden on their loved ones as the top benefit of estate planning and other end-of-life planning. (Age Wave/Merrill)

41. 52% of Americans over the age of 55 say that dying without an end-of-life plan would be “irresponsible," 22% say it would be “inconsiderate," and 14% say it would be “ignorant." (Age Wave/Merrill)

42. 71% of American adults report that creating an estate plan would make them feel like a good parent or partner. (WealthCounsel)

For most people, estate planning starts with talking to a loved one. Twenty percent of people choose to talk with a loved one about estate planning, while 10% start by doing some solo research online.

If you're just beginning your research, some estate planning documents you should look into include a:

  • Last will and testament: Specify how you want your assets and property to be distributed after your death.
  • Living will: Inform your family about your wishes for end-of-life health care decisions.
  • Living trust: Much like a last will and testament, this legal document allows you to dictate who should receive your assets upon your death. The primary difference is that you can also transfer your assets before you pass away.

What happens if you die without a will?

Passing away without a will—also called dying intestate—means that the courts ultimately decide who receives your assets. To prevent that scenario, you should write a will and update it regularly.

When to write a will

A will is a legal document that includes instructions for the executor about who will care for your minor children and what to do with your assets. It's generally best to make at least a simple will as soon as you become a legal adult.

43. 34% of people started estate planning due to the birth of a child. (Trust & Will)

44. 9% of people made estate planning a priority after buying a home. (Trust & Will)

45. 11% of people were spurred to begin estate planning following the death of a family member. (Trust & Will)

Additionally, proactive estate planning allows families to bypass lengthy and expensive probate court proceedings and cut down on family drama that arises from estate disputes.

Downloadable estate planning resource

Ensure that your loved ones have all of the information they need in one place using our downloadable estate planning binder.

In it, you can specify where to find important documents, express your funeral wishes, record important digital account passwords, and communicate your favorite quotes and life lessons. Print out the pages and assemble them into a binder, and let your family know where they can find it!

Common estate planning mistakes

Here are some common estate planning mistakes to avoid:

  1. Not attempting to make a last will and testament at all
  2. Only naming one beneficiary
  3. Not talking to your loved ones about your end-of-life wishes
  4. Promising specific assets that may change or no longer exist at the time of your death
  5. Not making final arrangements or a living will
  6. Forgetting to account for estate taxes
  7. Making a will and never updating it
  8. Not specifying legal guardians for your children

Steps to keep in mind

Every estate plan should take into account four considerations: what should happen to your assets when you pass away, how you will help your family maintain their financial well-being, how to avoid the often lengthy and expensive probate process, and how to eliminate or minimize estate taxes.

Follow these 12 steps to get started with an estate plan. Or take a look at this comprehensive estate planning checklist for more detailed information.

  1. Inventory all of your assets
  2. Think critically about how you can best help your family
  3. Make plans to protect your children and their inheritance
  4. Collect information about your debts
  5. Create a list of your active memberships
  6. Establish an advanced medical directive
  7. Select a medical and financial power of attorney
  8. File beneficiary forms for all of your accounts
  9. Make funeral arrangements
  10. Purchase life insurance
  11. Familiarize yourself with estate tax laws
  12. Document your decisions in an estate planning document

Estate planning FAQ

Here is everything you need to know about survivorship policies, important estate planning documents, will executors, and typical expenses.

Q: How are survivorship life insurance policies helpful in estate planning?

A: Nearly every adult has heard of a joint life insurance policy in which the spouse of the first person to die receives a payout. This is also called a “first to die" policy.

But you can also choose to invest in a “second to die" policy, which is more commonly known as a survivorship policy. This policy distributes funds to beneficiaries after the second policyholder dies. Generally, a couple's children are the recipients.

The primary benefit of having a survivorship life insurance policy is that it can easily be exchanged for cash. This helps your beneficiaries cover your end-of-life or death expenses without selling off your possessions.

Q: What documents are needed for estate planning?

A: It's a good idea to consult an attorney to ensure you have all the documents you need to plan your estate. These documents, however, can help you get started with a simple will:

  • Real estate deeds
  • Vehicle titles
  • Trusts
  • Investment certificates
  • Financial information
  • Retirement plan details
  • Unpaid bills and debts
  • Information about final arrangements or funeral payment plans

Q: How much does estate planning cost?

A: You may be able to find an attorney willing to write up a simple will for as little as $150 total. But more complex estate planning documents can cost $300 per hour or more.

If you're one of the thousands of people who are worried about spending that kind of money on an estate plan, consider using a self-guided service with attorney assistance to save some money, or write a basic last will for $89.

Q: What is the role of an executor in estate planning?

A: The executor of the will is a trustee whom you designate to carry out the instructions documented. This person can be a legal representative or someone you trust, but the court must approve them.

Q: What does an estate planning attorney do?

A: An estate planning attorney will ensure that your assets go where you want them to once you're gone.

Also called estate lawyers and probate attorneys, these licensed professionals will help you navigate both state and federal estate laws. They can ensure you get the highest level of care at the end of your life and 100% control over the future of your assets. They can also handle the legal paperwork that allows you to care for your chosen beneficiaries for years to come while reducing the overall tax burden on them.

Probate lawyers can help:

  • Set up a living trust
  • Draft a last will and testament
  • Designate durable and medical power of attorney
  • Keep your loved ones out of probate court
  • Reduce estate taxes

Leave a lasting legacy

When you're gone, your legacy will live on. A will and other estate planning documents ensure that you'll still be able to care for the people and causes that matter most to you for years. Planning early can help you leave behind assets and resources that impact the world and your loved ones for generations to come.

Ensure your loved ones and property are protected Start my estate plan

About the Author

Siege Media, contributor to LegalZoom

Read more

This portion of the site is for informational purposes only. The content is not legal advice. The statements and opinions are the expression of the author, not LegalZoom, and have not been evaluated by LegalZoom for accuracy, completeness, or changes in the law.