Death and taxes may be life’s only certainties, but fewer than one-half of adults in the United States are fully preparing for those eventualities.

Fifty-eight percent of adults don’t have a basic will and 69 percent don’t have a living will or medical directive, which explains an individual’s wishes for receiving medical life support if he or she is terminally ill or permanently unconscious. What’s more, only 27 percent have signed a power of attorney for healthcare and only 26 percent have signed a power of attorney for their finances, according to a small survey from Lawyers.com, an online database of 440,000 lawyers from legal publishers LexisNexis Martindale-Hubbell. A will is generally the first document considered in an individual’s estate plan.

“An estate plan not only ensures your property eventually winds up where you want it to, but it can relieve your loved ones of the burdens of having to make difficult financial and medical decisions for you, if you’re physically or mentally unable to do so for yourself,” said attorney Alan Kopit, Lawyers.com’s legal editor.

Powers of attorney name a person or organization to make healthcare and financial decisions for an individual if that person becomes incapacitated, even if it is just temporarily.

“Without having crucial documents like living wills and powers of attorneys in place, many Americans are leaving their loved ones vulnerable to the heartache–and in some cases expense–of having to make life or death decisions that could easily have been addressed at a time when emotional strain is not nearly so intense,” Kopit said. Only about one in five adult Americans has created a trust as part of an estate plan, the survey found.

“In some situations, a trust is the best way to make sure loved ones end up with the largest possible amount of assets intended for them,” Kopit suggested.

Other findings:

  • Nearly one in five adults has personally experienced problems after the death or incapacitation of a loved one due to a lack of or improperly prepared an estate plan, including conflicts over asset distribution.

  • Only 45 percent of African Americans and Hispanics have any estate planning documents in place compared with 57 percent of white Americans. Only 28 percent of African American adults and 20 percent of Hispanics have wills compared with 46 percent of whites.

  • Thirty-eight percent of people who have an estate plan said they review or anticipate reviewing their plan documents at least once a year. Twenty-two percent said they plan to review once every two to three years.

  • Nearly 8 percent of those who don’t have an estate plan said they don’t have one because they do not want to think about dying or becoming incapacitated.

The study was conducted by Harris Interactive as a telephone survey of 504 men and 505 women 18years of age or older living in private households in the continental United States. 

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