How to Get a Death Certificate After a Loved One Dies

Closeup of a blank death certificate from the state of California.The most recent data from the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) indicates more than 3,400,000 deaths in the United States in 2021. When someone dies, the local government issues a formal document known as a death certificate.

The death certificate provides the date, location, and cause of death. Most state forms follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) U.S. standard certificate of death.

When a loved one passes away, it’s important to get a death certificate. This document is necessary to handle the financial and legal affairs of the deceased person.

In fact, most end-of-life matters require a death certificate. Offering proof that an individual has died allows surviving loved ones to decide. Still, many people do not know they need proof of death or know how to apply for a death certificate.

Following the death of a loved one, you’ll need a copy of the death certificate to do tasks such as making burial or cremation arrangements, transferring bank accounts and assets, and filing insurance claims.

Where to Get a Death Certificate

In most cases, you can get a death certificate through your county’s vital records office. You may also be able to get a certificate of death through the state Department of Health. Vital records offices maintain and issue official documents related to significant life events such as births, deaths, marriages, and divorces.

Typically, the county where the person resided issues the death certificate. However, when people die away from home, the county where the death occurred creates the death certificate.

The CDC’s website has a directory of state vital records offices, which can help you find your local office.

How Do I Find a Death Certificate?

To find a death certificate, you’ll first need to identify the jurisdiction where the death occurred. Next, contact the appropriate local vital records office.

Once you have found the office, you’ll need to request the certificate, either in person or online. To make the request, you’ll need the full name, date of death, and last county of residence of the deceased person. You’ll also need a form of identification to prove that you are a close family member, unless enough time has passed to make the death certificate part of the public record.

The office will require a fee, which generally ranges from $5 to $30 per copy. AARP recommends getting five to 10 copies.

Are Death Certificates Public Record?

Certain close family members can access the death certificate soon after the death. Others must wait until it becomes a public record.

In most states, death certificates become public records after a certain period, such as 25 years. Soon after an individual passes away, only close family can obtain the certificate. These individuals include spouses, siblings, and children. Others who may be able to receive a copy of the death certificate include the personal representative or executor of the estate and beneficiaries.

Inquire with your state’s vital records office to determine when death records become public in your state.

How Long Does It Take to Get a Death Certificate?

Obtaining an official death certificate can take between two and four weeks after making a request with the vital records office.

In most cases, the process of creating a death certificate begins within 72 hours of the death, when the coroner or medical examiner confers with a spouse or relative to verify information such as the deceased’s Social Security number, birth date, and professional information. The coroner or medical examiner then submits the document to the vital records office.

Some factors can prolong the process. For instance, states with paper filing services tend to take longer. Legal concerns can also cause complications. In cases with ongoing investigations, state governments typically require the certificate to list the cause of death. If the death is still under investigation, officials may need more time to determine the cause.

Contact Your Estate Planning Attorney

Following the death of a loved one, handling legal tasks can be overwhelming. When you work with your estate planning attorney, you can focus on grieving and healing while they help you with tasks such as obtaining a death certificate.

What Is the Difference Between a Will and a Trust?

Eyeglasses, pen, and calculator atop estate planning documents.Wills and trusts are foundational estate planning tools. While each is used to distribute assets to beneficiaries, they do so in different ways. Each also has its own distinct uses and advantages. They’re often used together to close gaps in an estate plan and prepare for multiple scenarios that might otherwise cause unexpected burdens for heirs.

What Is a Will?

A “last will and testament,” or simply, as a will, is the most basic estate planning tool. It provides instructions about what should happen to your assets — including bank accounts, real estate, investments, business assets, digital assets, and personal items — after you die.

A will may direct donations to charity, name a guardian for minor children and pets, and provide for funeral arrangements.

The person who creates a will (the “testator”) names an executor to ensure that the instructions in their will are carried out, and that the legal requirements for administering an estate, such as paying creditors, filing tax forms, and completing probate, are fulfilled. (Probate is the court-supervised process of validating the will, overseeing its administration, and ensuring your assets are distributed the way you intend.)

Perhaps most importantly, a will guarantees that you do not die “intestate,” or without a will. Dying intestate leaves crucial estate decisions up to state law and the court, including how your assets will be distributed and who will care for your minor children.

It is a relatively simple, inexpensive process to create a will. Yet only around one-third of American adults have a will.

Wills should not be confused with living wills. A living will, or advanced directive, pertains to medical treatment preferences and end-of-life care decisions.

What Is a Trust?

A trust is a contractual legal arrangement that allows a third party (the “trustee”) to hold and manage assets on behalf of a beneficiary (or beneficiaries). The person who creates the trust is called the “grantor.”

The grantor can fund a trust with the same types of assets that are typically named in a will. However, the assets are retitled in the name of the trust, making them the property of the trust — not the grantor. A trustee then manages those assets, and distributes them to the trust’s beneficiaries, according to the terms of the trust document.

Different types of trust types achieve specific estate planning objectives. For example, a living trust allows the grantor to serve as trustee and control the trust’s assets during their lifetime. When they pass away, a new trustee takes over. Living trusts also offer incapacity planning.

Other reasons to use trusts are to avoid probate or reduce estate taxes. Someone may use a trust to place conditions on how assets can be used. (For example, a beneficiary may only inherit assets once they reach adulthood.)

Trusts, in short, provide more flexibility than wills and allow an estate plan to be tailored to many situations.

Will vs. Trust Differences

Wills and trusts are not mutually exclusive. Both are useful in achieving certain purposes and can work together in an estate plan.

Effect

A will becomes effective only after your death. A trust takes effect as soon as you create it and can distribute property before death, at death, or afterward.

Assets

A will covers any property that is only in your name when you die. It does not cover property held in joint tenancy or in a trust. A trust, conversely, covers only property that has been transferred to the trust. Property must be in the name of the trust to be included in it.

Beneficiaries

A trust usually has two types of beneficiaries. The “primary beneficiaries” receive assets/income from the trust during their lives. The “successor beneficiaries” receive whatever trust funds remain after the first set of beneficiaries dies.

Wills do not allow for successor beneficiaries, but they do allow for “secondary” or “contingent” beneficiaries. These beneficiaries serve as a backup in case your primary beneficiaries predecease you.

Probate

A will passes through the probate process, while a trust does not, which can save time and money. And unlike a will, which becomes a matter of public record, a trust can remain private.

Taxes

Wills are not a tool for avoiding estate and inheritance taxes assessed at the federal and state levels.

Most estates are not large enough to qualify for these taxes. Those that do may be taxed up to 40 percent, leaving considerably fewer assets for heirs. However, transferring assets into trusts can avoid these taxes.

Cost

It generally costs more to set up a trust than a will. Actual costs depend on the estate’s size and complexity.

Online wills and trusts are available, but using these could lead to errors and clarity issues that throw your estate into chaos and jeopardize your legacy.

Work with your estate planner to ensure your documents are valid and your final wishes are carried out.

Do I Need a Will or Trust?

Anyone with assets that they want to pass on to particular beneficiaries should have a will. Trusts are more appropriate on a case-by-case basis. For example, if you hope to avoid probate or estate taxes, or have jointly owned property not covered by a will, consider a trust.

One type of estate planning tool is not necessarily better than another. Which tools make sense for you depend on your circumstances and goals.

Work with your estate planning attorney to learn what legal documents should be part of your estate plan.

Be Aware of the Dangers of Joint Accounts

Definition of joint account highlighted in a dictionary.Joint bank accounts serve as a useful estate planning tool for passing money to loved ones outside of probate and planning for disability. But while they can achieve these goals, and are useful in certain circumstances, joint accounts also present risks.

To avoid unexpected problems, understand the pitfalls of adding a joint owner to a bank account and the alternative solutions that are available.

Why Joint Accounts Are Used

A joint bank account allows two people to own and have full control over the account. Once money is deposited in a joint account, it belongs to both account owners equally, regardless of who deposited the money. Each owner can write checks, obtain a debit card, and make purchases, deposits, and withdrawals without the other owner’s consent.

Sharing assets in a joint account can be convenient for unmarried or married couples, helping them to save, spend, and manage their money more efficiently. Opening a joint account offers, for example, the opportunity to split up monthly household expenses more easily. Having one account together instead of individual accounts also may help a couple save money toward a shared goal.

Couples, parents and children, and other family members might share an account for money management as well as estate planning purposes. Joint accounts can give them a way to plan ahead in case one account holder becomes unable to handle their affairs. It also allows them to transfer assets without going through probate, the court process for distributing a deceased person’s assets.

A parent, for example, can add a child to an account to give the child access to money if the parent becomes disabled. The child can then pay bills and manage money for the parent. And when the parent dies, the entire account passes to the child without having to involve the court.

The Risks of Joint Accounts

The most obvious red flag of a joint account is that you must be sure you trust the other owner, since they will have full access to the account. But joint accounts also have some less-obvious risks that include the following:

Joint Accounts and Creditor Issues

A potential issue with joint accounts is that it makes the account vulnerable to all creditors from each owner. Creditor issues affecting one owner therefore affect the other owner.

Suppose you add your daughter to your checking account, and she later falls behind on credit card payments. The credit card company sues her to collect the debt.

In this scenario, the credit card company can obtain the money in the joint account to pay off your daughter’s debt. That is, your money can be used to service her credit card debt — and any other debt she might accrue, such as mortgage debt, student loan debt, auto loan debt, and medical debt.

With the average American owing around $10,000 to $30,000 in non-mortgage debt, this is a real possibility. Young people tend to owe more debt, and have higher delinquency rates, than older borrowers.

Joint Accounts and Medicaid Eligibility

Joint accounts can also affect Medicaid eligibility.

When a person applies for Medicaid long-term care, the state looks at the applicant's assets to see if they qualify for assistance. While a joint account may have two names on it, most states assume the applicant owns the entire amount in the account, regardless of who deposited money into it.

In most states, you must have less than $2,000 to your name to qualify for Medicaid. If your name is on a joint account and you enter a nursing home, the state will assume the assets in the account belong to you — unless you can prove that you did not contribute them. If you can’t meet the state’s burden of proof, you could fail their means-tested eligibility criteria for Medicaid.

Not only that, but if you are a joint owner of a bank account and you or the other owner transfers assets out of the account, this may be considered an improper transfer of assets for Medicaid purposes. As a result, either one of you could be temporarily ineligible for Medicaid, depending on the amount of money in the account.

A similar risk arises if a joint owner is removed from a bank account. If your spouse enters a nursing home, for instance, and you remove their name from the joint bank account, it could be considered an improper transfer of assets.

Other Potential Joint Account Issues

In addition to creditor and Medicaid eligibility issues, joint accounts can pose problems related to: 

Alternatives to Joint Accounts for Estate Planning

Joint accounts can provide benefits to your estate plan, but this should not be their primary purpose. The risks are likely to outweigh any advantages they provide for disability/incapacity planning and probate avoidance.

A power of attorney will ensure family members have access to your finances in the case of your disability. And if you are seeking to transfer assets and avoid probate, a trust may make more sense.

Not all joint accounts are the same, either. Structuring an account as a “Transfer on Death” account, rather than as a “Joint With Rights of Survivorship” account, will give a beneficiary access to it only after you pass away, thus skipping probate while avoiding potential gift tax issues.

To learn more about joint accounts, estate planning, and the best way to structure a plan for your situation, work with your estate planning attorney.

What You Should Know About Prepaid Funeral Plans

Mourner holds lillies in one hand and places the other on a casket during a funeral service.How Much Are Funeral Costs in the United States?

Funerals rank among the most expensive purchases many consumers will ever make. As of 2023, the median cost of a traditional funeral, with casket and burial, was $8,300.

The average cost varies depending on where you live as well. Data from 2024 shows that average funeral costs (for burial or cremation) are highest in the following seven states: Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota. Any "extras," like flowers, death notices, acknowledgment cards, and limousines, can bring the total to well over $10,000.

The process of organizing a funeral or celebration of life for someone else is an overwhelming and emotional one. Many people consider a funeral or burial a reflection of their feelings for their deceased family member or friend. As a result, they may tend to "overspend" on these services.

Planning Your Own Services

Today, an increasing number of people are planning their own funerals or memorial services. They may also designate their funeral preferences in detail and sometimes even pay for funeral ceremony in advance.

In part, they may pursue a prepaid, or "pre-need," funeral plan to help relieve their family members of the financial burden. They also do this to offer them some peace of mind. With plans already in place, their loved ones can forgo certain decisions amid their grief, when they're likely also overwhelmed with other pressing tasks.

Prepayment for funeral services can serve as an effective Medicaid planning strategy, too. For example, you may be looking to apply for Medicaid and need to spend down your assets to qualify for the program. Opting into a prepaid funeral contract can help you do this.

In addition to burial or cremation costs like caskets, urns, or burial plots, you may be able to include other expenses in your prepaid funeral plan. This can vary, but may include:

What to Look Out for When Prepaying for Funeral Services

However, consumers lose millions of dollars every year when pre-need funeral funds are misspent. A funeral provider could mishandle, mismanage, or embezzle the funds. Some go out of business before the need for the pre-paid funeral arises. Others sell policies that prove to be virtually worthless.

In the 1980s, consumers received some protection from unscrupulous funeral providers with the creation of the Funeral Rule. Under this rule, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) requires funeral providers to give consumers accurate, itemized price information and other specific disclosures about funeral goods and services.

Unfortunately, the Funeral Rule does not apply to many of the features of pre-need contracts that fall under state law. Plus, protections vary widely from state to state. Some state laws require the funeral home or cemetery to place a percentage of the prepayment in a state-regulated trust or to purchase a life insurance policy with the death benefits assigned to the funeral home or cemetery. Other states, however, offer buyers of pre-need plans little or no effective protection.

The FTC recommends exploring several aspects of a pre-need funeral arrangement in detail before you sign up. Consult with your attorney on these ideas before signing anything. The following come from tips the FTC shares on its Shopping for Funeral Services consumer advice page:

Communicate With Your Loved Ones

Of course, you can avoid many of these pitfalls by making decisions about your arrangements in advance, but not paying for them in advance. Either way, tell your family about the plans you've made and also make them aware of where you've filed the pertinent documents. You may also wish to consult your attorney on the best way to ensure that your family members follow through on your wishes.

If you're just beginning to do your research and compare prices, connect with trusted loved ones on funeral homes they may recommend. See if one of them would be willing to join you when you make visits to different homes.

Consider a Payable on Death Account

To guarantee money is available to pay for your funeral, work with your bank to set up a payable-on-death (POD) account. (Note: Not all states offer POD accounts as an option.) Name the person who will be handling your funeral arrangements the beneficiary (and make sure they know your plans).

With a POD account, you will be able to maintain control of your money while you are alive. Then, when you pass away, it is available immediately to the beneficiary, without having to go through probate.

You be interested in exploring other potential options for prepaying, such as final expense insurance (also called burial insurance). Your insurance provider or your estate planning attorney can help you identify a suitable policy.

What Else to Keep in Mind

In some cases, it can be more convenient and less stressful to "price shop" funeral homes by telephone or online, rather than in person. The Funeral Rule requires funeral directors to provide price information to anyone who asks for it.

If you have questions about your state's laws, most states have a licensing board that regulates the funeral industry. Your estate planning attorney also has the expertise to help you with planning and to guide you on your rights.

Who Does a Probate Attorney Represent: Executor or Heirs?

Estate planning lawyer explains documents to senior father and adult daughter in office.In estate planning, the executor, or personal representative, is responsible for managing the administration of the estate after an individual passes away. An executor may be a person or an institution. Their duties include applying for probate and ensuring that the heirs receive assets according to the deceased person's wishes. When an estate needs to go through the probate process, the executor is also the one who hires a probate lawyer.

What Is Probate?

Probate is a standard legal procedure formalizing how some assets pass from decedents to their chosen heirs. Whether or not probate is necessary depends in part on the type of property as well as the state laws where the decedent lived. While probate can be a complex process for vast estates, it’s often a simple formality for most Americans. Essentially, probate allows a judge to give legal permission for assets to pass whether or not there is a last will.

The Role of the Probate Lawyer

Whether you are an executor or an heir of the probate estate, knowing the probate lawyer’s role is essential. Consider it one of the first steps you should take at the beginning of the probate process. One of the biggest sources of conflict in probating an estate is understanding the role of the probate attorney.

Many executors don’t understand the probate process and end up leaving all the tasks up to the lawyer. Meanwhile, the heirs of the estate may hear the executor say, “This is what the lawyer says we have to do.”

An executor has an obligation to act in the best interest of the estate's heirs. This means the executor is acting in the role of a fiduciary. If the executor owes a fiduciary duty to the heirs of the estate, then does the lawyer whom the executor hired also owe a fiduciary duty to the heirs? The answer to that question depends on the state in which the estate is going through probate.

To be clear, this question focuses specifically on whether a lawyer owes the heirs of a probate estate a fiduciary duty. It does not address whether a lawyer owes a fiduciary duty in other contexts.

(For example, a trustee may hire a lawyer to serve the individuals who stand to benefit from a trust. Or a guardian or conservator may hire a lawyer to serve for in the best interests of a ward. The answer will vary depending on each different circumstance.)

Fiduciary Duties of the Executor

Before answering the question, it’s helpful to have an idea of some common activities created by fiduciary duties in the context of probating an estate:

Fiduciary Duty of a Probate Attorney

So, back to the question: Does the lawyer owe a fiduciary duty to the heirs of a probate estate? It depends on the state in which the estate is being probated.

Only a few states require the lawyer to meet the same fiduciary duty to the estate heirs as the executor. In these states, the executor owes a fiduciary duty to the heirs, and the lawyer owes a fiduciary duty to the executor. Therefore, the duty flows from the executor to the lawyer.

Most states, however, take the position that the lawyer doesn’t owe a fiduciary duty to the estate heirs. These states view the fiduciary duty owed by the executor to the heirs as unique from the fiduciary duty owed by the lawyer to the executor. Also, these states want to maintain the executor’s ability to have protected communication with the attorney.

Another small set of states, including California, New Mexico, and Illinois, apply a balancing test. This determines who was the actual intended beneficiary of the attorney-client relationship – the executor or the heirs. Each state has established its own test criteria. One common question the courts may ask is whether the intended beneficiary of the attorney’s services was the executor or the heirs.

Starting the Probate Process

If you are the executor hiring the attorney, ask what the law is regarding probate.

If you are an heir of a loved one's estate, the lawyer should be able to give you some guidance. If the probate estate is in one of the majority states, the first letter from the attorney should start with a sentence that reads something like, “I have been retained by Mr. Smith, executor of the estate of Ms. Smith. Please note that I do not represent you.” Otherwise, you may want to call the attorney and ask for more information.

Everyone’s goal should be for the settling of the probate estate to go smoothly. Understanding the probate lawyer’s role will go a long way toward achieving that goal.

It can be daunting to understand and navigate the ins and outs of probate court, whether you are the executor or an heir. Having trust and confidence in the legal professionals with whom you are working is essential, so be sure to connect with your attorney.

Navigating Disputes in Probate Court

Female witness answers questions in probate court while judge listens.When someone passes away, the probate process ensures that the deceaseds estate fulfills its debts and that the heirs receive their assets. The deceaseds will dictates how to settle and distribute their assets and debts. (If no will exists, state intestacy laws apply.) When a legal dispute arises during the process of probate, probate litigation may ensue.

Most matters the probate courts handle, like admitting wills and assigning executors, are standard operating procedures and go uncontested. However, legal contests arising from a person’s death or mental capacity may lead to probate litigation over powers of attorney, will and trust contests, guardianships, and living wills.

Common Legal Concerns in Probate Court

Some common problems leading to probate litigations include the following:

Will Contests

Questions sometimes surface about the validity of a will. Interested parties may dispute the deceased persons will or allege undue influence or fraud. Or they might argue that the person who made the will (testator) lacked the mental capacity to create a valid will.

Estate Administration Disputes

Likewise, disagreements may arise among heirs, executors, or administrators regarding the management and distribution of estate assets. These arguments can include allegations of mismanagement or conflicts over the interpretation of the will or trust provisions.

Claims Against the Estate

Creditors or individuals may believe they have a rightful claim to the deceased person’s assets. They then may seek to file claims against the estate. Claims can include outstanding debts, unresolved contracts, or disputed property ownership.

Guardianship Disputes

In disputes over appointing a guardian for a minor or a disabled adult, probate litigation can also result. Concerns about the actions of an appointed guardian or conservator may lead to probate litigation, too.

Breach of Trust

By law, executors, administrators, and trustees must act in the best interests of the estate and its beneficiaries. Allegations of misconduct, self-dealing, or failure to fulfill these obligations may lead to litigation.

Document Interpretation

Disputes may arise over the interpretation of a will, trust, or other estate planning documents. These conflicts can involve disagreements about:

Family Disputes

Family dynamics can often lead to probate litigation, especially with strained relationships, blended families, or unequal distributions of assets. Sibling rivalry, disputes with former spouses, or decisions to cut off certain heirs can result in legal challenges.

Individuals marrying multiple times without a prenuptial agreement are also likely to incite probate litigation upon their death. Life insurance trusts can be a valuable way to separate the interests of the decedent’s spouses and children.

Probate, Estate, and Trust Litigation Attorneys

If you anticipate probate litigation, your estate administration attorney can provide you with guidance. They will be able to explain your rights and options to prevent future problems. If you are involved in a dispute, a probate litigation attorney can help you navigate the legal system and resolve it. Some attorneys specialize specifically in conflicts with trust administration and litigation.

Consider your legal situation as well as an attorney’s experience, reputation, and track record when handling similar matters. Feeling comfortable working with them is essential.

Early Steps in Probate Litigation

In probate litigation, your attorney plays a key role in representing your interests while navigating the legal process. All things begin with an initial lawyer consultation to discuss your case’s details, goals, and concerns.

Your attorney will evaluate the strength of your claims or defenses. They also can explain the legal process, potential outcomes, and available strategies to achieve your objectives. Most states have strict statutes of limitations, so the earlier you contact a probate litigation lawyer, the better.

Your attorney can thoroughly research your case’s relevant laws, precedents, and regulations. They will analyze the facts and circumstances to develop a legal strategy tailored to your situation. They’ll also review all relevant documents, including wills, financial records, trusts, and other evidence relating to the dispute. Your attorney will then prepare and draft such legal documents as complaints, petitions, answers, motions, and discovery requests.

Probate Court Processes

Probate litigation hearings and trials usually take place in the county probate court where the decedent died. Your attorney should be familiar with the county probate court where the case is being tried.

Your attorney will engage in the discovery process by gathering evidence, documents, and depositions from other parties. They will also respond to discovery requests from the opposing party. Each side will advocate for their client’s interests and work to reach a favorable settlement if possible. They will also advise them on the merits of accepting or rejecting settlement offers.

Trial preparation and representation will occur if the settlement phase fails. In this situation, your lawyer would prepare you for trial, make legal arguments, examine and cross-examine witnesses, and present your case to the court. Throughout the process, they are responsible for helping you make informed decisions regarding the direction of your case.

Work With Your Attorney

Probate court can elicit high emotions and tense interactions. You may, for instance, see significant disruption to family relationships. These sorts of disputes could open the estate to creditor lawsuits as well.

Estate administration and probate litigation attorneys assist in preventing these kinds of estate-related contests. With a qualified professional, you can execute a proper estate plan. This can reduce the likelihood of probate litigation happening in the first place.

40% of People Say They Don't Have Enough to Make a Will

Senior woman signing her last will and testament.Four in 10 people believe they do not have enough assets to make a will, according to Caring.com’s 2024 Wills and Estate Planning Study, which surveyed more than 2,400 individuals.

This statistic reflects a common misconception about estate planning: that it is only for the wealthy.

In reality, estate planning can benefit people across the economic spectrum. Involving more than passing on wealth, estate planning also encompasses planning for aging, illnesses, or injuries, which can be unpredictable. Estate planning allows individuals to make crucial decisions, such as who will care for their children if they pass away or what kind of care they would prefer to receive in their later years.

What Is a Will, and Why Do I Need One?

A will stands among the most basic of estate planning documents. In a will, you can specify who receives your possessions upon your death. This could include friends, family members, nonprofit organizations, or other entities. Having a valid will in place can help your loved ones avoid potential arguments over your assets, such as real estate or any items you had of sentimental value.

In this legal document, you also name someone to follow the instructions you have outlined. If you have minor children, you can appoint someone you trust as their guardian in your will. Likewise, you may put plans in place in your will for your pets should you pass away.

Keep in mind that you should update your will and the rest of your estate plan when significant changes happen in your life. For example, you may have recently welcomed a new grandchild, moved to a new state, or filed for divorce.

More People Are Saying They Do Not Have Enough Assets

The Caring.com annual survey sheds light on Americans’ views about estate planning, highlighting the misconceptions that may delay or prevent them from planning.

From 2022 to 2024, the proportion of people saying they lack adequate resources to execute a will rose by 21 percent.

Compared with respondents with higher incomes, those with lower incomes were twice as likely to report not having enough assets to make a will.

People with less education were also more likely to cite insufficient assets. Forty-three percent of respondents with a high school diploma or less education said they did not have a will because they did not have enough to leave anyone.

Few Americans Have a Will

Interestingly, 64 percent of people surveyed said having a will is very or somewhat important.

Despite this, only 32 percent have a will as of 2024 — a 6 percent decrease from 2023. In 2024, 14 percent more adults also indicated a lack of assets as a reason for not having a plan.

The Impact of Inflation

Increasing prices of goods and necessities have placed financial strain on households. Inflation has therefore shaped views on estate planning as well.

Some see rising inflation as a motivator for planning, while others see it as reducing the need for an estate plan because it magnifies their lack of financial resources.

Reasons for Estate Planning

While some never intend to create an estate plan, others delay planning, waiting for certain life events to take place.

Approximately one in four Americans report that nothing would prompt them to get a will. Forty-three percent cited procrastination as the reason for not making a will.

Many Americans wait for medical diagnoses, major purchases, retirement, or family changes before they start estate planning.

While many people wait for a motivator to start estate planning, it can be challenging to predict when an illness, injury, death, or significant life change may occur. Being proactive and creating an estate plan in advance of life events can offer a layer of protection.

Work With Your Estate Planning Attorney

Even if you think you do not have enough assets to make a will, there are many benefits to having an estate plan. Your estate planning attorney can support you in creating a plan for the future that addresses your needs. They also can help you prepare advance directives such as powers of attorney, appoint a guardian for your minor children, and plan for long-term care.

A Useless Power of Attorney: Avoid Free Legal Documents

Businessman sits in front of laptop amid paperwork gritting teeth in frustration.A power of attorney designates a trusted individual to make decisions or conduct transactions on your behalf. They could be related to personal finances, business operations, or medical needs and used for a single immediate purpose or an ongoing situation.

This may sound pretty straightforward. You might be tempted to download a free form to take care of it when looking for services online. But will that be enough to ensure the document is legally recognized, important matters are handled quickly, and your specific instructions are followed?

Understanding Powers of Attorney

Implementing Power of Attorney (POA) documents is an integral part of your estate planning process. All states recognize powers of attorney, but rules and requirements will differ from state to state. The POA document gives one or more individuals the legal authority to act as your agent on your behalf.

Depending on which POA you choose, you may limit the agent's power to a particular activity. This might include things like real estate sales or broader applications.

A power of attorney may give permanent or temporary authority to the agent you appoint. You can set the POA up to invoke immediately. Or, you can have it activate when a future event, such as a physical disability, occurs. The latter is a "springing" power of attorney.

Other types of powers of attorney include limited, durable, and general POAs.

For example, a general POA permits the agent to deal with any matters on your behalf that state law allows. Under such an agreement, the agent may sign checks, handle bank accounts, sell property, manage assets, and file taxes when you are unable. This POA has a wide latitude of authority. Therefore, there needs to be coordination between you and your agent to ensure your best interests are always represented.

The better-known powers of attorney are durable and take effect if you are incapacitated. The word "durable" means the powers will remain intact even when you can no longer manage your affairs. There are two types of durable POAs; one handles financial matters, and the other manages medical affairs, often called a health care directive.

You also may rescind powers of attorney. However, most states will require written notice of revocation to the named individual or entity.

Consider the following scenarios, when free, online powers of attorney don't prove as helpful as you may have hoped.

Financial Power of Attorney

Suppose a business colleague wants you to take care of their business operations. You become responsible for making critical decisions while they are out of the country.

They give you POA by using a free online legal document that promises to contain everything you need to comply with state law. The document seems noticeably concise. You wonder why legal documents need to be so lengthy and expensive in the first place.

When you go to your friend’s bank to transfer funds, the bank denies you access. You discover why: The bank requires different forms and rules for a power of attorney. Your friend had no knowledge of these requirements, and now you won't able to contact them for several weeks.

When you track them down, they must fill out additional forms with the bank and get them notarized before you attempt any more transactions. The legal document failed.

Health Care or Medical Power of Attorney

You receive a call about a good friend who has suffered a head injury and needs urgent nursing home care. He is looking at long-term care costs between $5,000 and $8,000 a month for rehabilitation. However, you know he lives on a fixed income of only $2,500 a month from Social Security. Medicare doesn’t cover long-term care services, and his income is too high to qualify for assistance from Medicaid.

On top of facing a financial crisis, someone needs to make decisions about the level and cost of care he can afford. Your friend doesn’t have the capacity to make them in his current situation.

You know what he has expressed in the past about specific treatments and efforts to prolong his life. You even witnessed the online form he used for a health care power of attorney.

However, his family members contest the document. Meanwhile, the doctors won’t listen to you without more specific advanced health care directives and a signed HIPAA release form. Another legal document failure.

The Dangers of Free Online Documents

How can online documents be legally approved for use by the public but insufficient when you need to use them? The POA documents that you may have believed would prove helpful in the scenarios above only offered general information for the most basic needs. With so many variables in finances, business, and medical situations, the language is often not specific enough to address the unique problem.

When you get a POA through an estate planning firm, each document contains wording regarding several circumstances and refers to other critical documents, like living wills and trusts. Additional details instruct the person you've chosen to act on your behalf when dealing with decisions regarding banking and medical institutions or personnel. For example, it may permit them to set up another trust, reorganize assets, open and close banking or investment accounts, and require health care professionals to comply with your medical wishes.

Connect With Your Estate Planning Attorney

A free online power of attorney could cost you valuable time, money, and frustration. Many other legal considerations determine how your power of attorney will work.

The best way to establish powers of attorney is to work with your estate planning attorney. They can go over common pitfalls and discuss options on how to avoid them. They also understand the criteria for identifying the individuals or agents to represent your interests.

When you rely on legal documents to get an important job done or simplify decisions in an emergency, it needs to work as promised. Consult with your estate planner to ensure you are prepared to handle any situation. The biggest benefit of having these matters settled before you have passed away or become unable to handle your affairs is allowing your family to care or grieve for you instead of being caught up in logistics.

What Is MAID (Medical Aid-in-Dying)?

Daughter holding the hand of her terminally ill mother lying in bedMany people seek to avoid situations in which life is unnecessarily prolonged. Subsisting on expensive life-support long beyond when treatment might improve one's quality of life can be cruel.

With advance directives, including living wills and powers of attorney, you can outline your wishes ahead of time. These documents allow you to communicate your medical care preferences to your family and doctors. They can prove especially important in case of a serious injury or illness, or when you are approaching the end of your life.

Patients who have a terminal illness diagnosis may suffer greatly until the inevitable end comes. Drugs are available to usher in death relatively gently, to relieve misery and pain.

Natural Death and Assisted Suicide

Some people may wish to decline life-saving treatment if facing a terminal illness. Others opt to seek out a physician's assistance in dying. Acting to end life before its natural course has run poses grave moral issues for many.

Medical aid-in-dying (MAID) involves having a physician prescribe a lethal dose of medication at the request of a competent patient with a terminal illness.

The traditional rule has been to make assisted suicide a crime. For example, in Arkansas, physician-assisted suicide is a felony punishable by three to 10 years imprisonment. In addition, you may face a fine of up to $10,000.

States Allowing Physician-Assisted Suicide as of 2024

A trend, however, has been emerging, with more states legalizing medical aid in dying (MAID). As of 2024, MAID is legal in the following 10 states, in addition to the District of Columbia:

Currently, several more states are considering legislation to make medically assisted death legal. These include the following:

Patients seeking MAID must be adults with a prognosis of six months or less to live. They also must demonstrate that they are mentally competent and able to administer the lethal medication themselves. Physicians act as gatekeepers to ensure patients are qualified and informed of the risks and alternatives. The physician then writes the prescription for a lethal dose of the drug at the patient's request, and the patient takes the medication.

Moral Questions and Fears

Some MAID opponents fear that family or unscrupulous doctors will pressure older, poor, and disabled patients into premature death. Others object based on their belief that life is a sacred gift and humans don’t have the right to end it.

The question is whether the law should govern the decision or a person’s moral or personal beliefs. Many feel torn between their faith and compassion for those who suffer. Juries tend to acquit doctors who are facing prosecution for MAID. Support from health care professionals and medical associations for medically assisted death has increased over time as well.

Many physicians have, however, expressed that patients seek out MAID only as a last resort. They assert the importance of reassuring patients that easing their pain is possible. If patients understand their comfort will always be the top priority, fewer people may resort to MAID.

Without a doubt, causing death deliberately through physician-assisted suicide is a tough decision for many people. Yet in the face of terminal illness, a patient may seriously consider requesting a doctor's help in ending their life. More and more states are declining to prolong life at all costs, especially if the patient feels the suffering has destroyed all quality of life.

Seeking Legal Solutions to Health Care Needs

If you are facing a terminal illness, you may need care in your home, or an assisted living facility or nursing home. Experts in estate planning and elder law can help you and your loved ones prepare for potential long-term care medical expenses. They also can draft advance directives and assist you in choosing the care and treatment you would prefer at the end of life. Contact your attorney today.

A Seniors Guide to Estate Planning

Happy senior couple meets with an estate planning attorney.Most older adults acknowledge that estate planning is essential. Yet, nearly half of Americans age 55 or older do not have a will, and even fewer have designated powers of attorney, a living will, or health care directives.

These legal documents help guide your representatives to provide the end-of-life wishes you seek. Estate planning also reduces the burden your loved ones face and lessens the potential for conflict among your family members after you are gone.

Whether you own a little or a great deal, every senior should have an estate plan. Your estate comprises your home, real estate, vehicles, businesses, bank accounts, life insurance, personal possessions, and any debt you may owe. The goals of your estate plan include:

Four basic elements of an estate plan can help you achieve these goals.

Creating Your Will

This legal document, called a testamentary will, transfers your estate, after you die, to the individuals or charities you name. Naming your executor or personal representative is another function of your will. This individual will ensure your wishes are carried out. Many older adults choose their most responsible adult child for this role.

Advise the person you choose to manage their expectations and advise your family of what to expect in your will. This way, you can address questions they may have and stave off family confrontations after you are gone.

Your will needs to include the following:

Be aware that if you have substantial assets in probate court, the process can wind up costing 10 percent of your estate value. (Probate is the legal proceeding where the court oversees the distribution of your assets.) This can add stress to your executor's role, as well as increase the time it takes for your family members to receive their inheritance.

You may wish to establish a trust; you can do so by working with an elder law attorney or estate planning attorney. Creating a trust can minimize taxes, restrict asset distribution, and also bypass probate. These trusts are usually a revocable or irrevocable living trust, special needs trust, or spendthrift trust. Your attorney can identify the trust type that best meets your needs.

Your Living Will and Durable Health Care Power of Attorney

A living will outlines your choices regarding end-of-life treatments and will come into play while you are still alive but unable to communicate health care decisions. Similarly, a health care power of attorney's decision-making will only be active when you become unable to communicate your wishes. The person you name as your durable health care power of attorney is typically a caregiver or family member who inspires the utmost trust.

Here are some general issues to consider when creating a living will:

If you have both documents, a living will trumps your health care proxy. Many older adults prefer to forgo a living will. They instead opt to rely on their health care proxy to make medical decisions on their behalf in the event that they become unable to communicate their wishes for treatment and life-saving measures. Whatever you choose, it is important to inform your loved ones of your health care preferences.

Durable Financial Power of Attorney

Much like a health care power of attorney, a financial power of attorney becomes active when you can no longer make financial decisions. The person you designate will manage your finances on your behalf. To alleviate excessive burden, consider appointing a different individual than your health care power of attorney. However, note that it is legally permissible to name the same person.

Your financial power of attorney should be highly trustworthy and financially stable. When selecting an individual in your life to fulfill this role, you may consider someone who not only lives near you, but is also willing and capable of serving. The individual must be financially responsible, trustworthy, and able to act in your best interests. Finally, this person should be proactive and assertive in protecting your finances.

While these documents represent the basics of an estate plan, your situation may require far more detail and nuanced expertise that an elder law attorney can provide if they do not also offer estate planning. Begin with a checklist including:

Connect With Your Estate Planning Attorney

When you accomplish these tasks, your attorney can review your efforts and put your plan into legal action. You will save time and money by being organized and having a basic understanding the estate planning process before meeting with them.

Once all of your estate planning documents are complete, you'll have a sense of peace knowing you have a solid plan that best protects you and your loved ones.