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Study Finds Big Drop in Share of Households With Wills

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What You Need to Know

  • The share of householders over 50 with a will dropped from 60% to 44% between 1996 and 2018, the Center for Retirement Research found.
  • Whites and those in top quartile of wealth were more likely to have wills or plan bequests.
  • One reason for the drop could be a greater concentration of wealth.

Having a legal will may not be a priority anymore, at least according to the Center of Retirement Research of Boston College. From 1996 to 2018, the group found, there has been a 12.5% drop in the percentage of households whose head is over 70 years old who have wills — from 72% to 63%.

During the same period, the share of householders 50 or older fell an even steeper 26 percentage points, from 60% to 44%. Why?

The CRR’s calculations, based on University of Michigan research, looked more at the race differential. In an opinion piece on MarketWatch, CRR Director Alicia Munnell shows that 59% of white and 21% of Black householders over 50 had a will, while 77% of white householders and 49% of Black ones would likely leave a bequest.

These were significant differences, Gal Wettstein, a CRR researcher, told ThinkAdvisor, and something that may “perpetuate itself,” he said.

“What stuck out to me was the huge [race] gap in the probability of having a will and intention of leaving a bequest, because that’s a really long-lasting impact,” he said. “It literally spans generations. That kind of thing that is hard to resolve itself.”

The drop in the overall number of those drawing up wills also is significant, and something the CRR plans to study more. But for now, Wettstein said, they can only speculate on reasons for the drop.

“The differences by race could be the population has become more diverse,” and people of color or lower income are less likely to get wills or leave bequests.

Indeed, it was the richest quartile of respondents who were more likely to have wills: 87% of those over 70 and 70% of those over 50, while in the poorest quartile, 36% over 70 had wills versus 22% over 50.

Although the CRR plans a deeper dive into the reasons for the decline, Wettstein speculates it could be anything from the trend toward a greater concentration of wealth to the Great Recession, when the drop first started.

After all, as a house is a large bequest, the crisis might have had an impact with so many people losing homes. Another possibility, he said, is the decline in company pension plans, which required named beneficiaries.

In its 2021 Wills and Estate Planning Study, Caring.com found that younger adults were 63% most likely to have a will than prior to the pandemic. And 18-34 year old respondents were 16% more likely to have a will than those 35-54 years old.