Another celebrity has died without a will. Sad to say, celebrities like Aretha Franklin who die without an estate plan have plenty of company among the less famous.

Merrill Lynch and the consulting firm Age Wave found that about half of those they surveyed 50 and older didn’t have a will.

“Very few people talk with close family members about important financial topics, such as level of financial security, plans for living arrangements in retirement, inheritance or long-term care,” noted the Merrill Lynch/Age Wave report, “Family & Retirement: The Elephant in the Room.”

Of course, you know you should have a will. Then why do so many people procrastinate on getting a will? 

My guess is the press of time. We believe many things are necessary for our physical, mental, and emotional well-being — including estate planning. But living the good life has become very demanding. Time is the scarce commodity. We’ll get to that will eventually, right?

So, here’s my suggestion for getting started. Record or write over the next weeks and months an ethical will, also known as a values statement or letter to our younger selves. Whatever you call it, the basic idea is to capture for your family and future family members — grandchildren and great grandchildren — what you want them to know about your values, what mattered to you in life, what traditions you hold dear and how you would like the world to become a better place.

The process of recording an ethical will starts a conversation with family. Once you begin capturing your values and discussing them with your family, it isn’t much of a leap to open discussions about your estate plan. “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward,” the late tech pioneer Steve Jobs said in his Stanford University commencement address. “So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”

An advantage of starting the conversation with an ethical will is that there’s less pressure on everyone and more time to get comfortable with the topic. The discussions will lead you to finally meet with a lawyer or go online to write your will. Good estate planning isn’t only about a will. You will want to arrange your finances so that you can age comfortably, establish durable power of attorney in case cognitive decline sets in and write an advanced health directive. These details naturally emerge from initial discussions about values, rather than the other way around.


Chris Farrell is senior economics contributor, “Marketplace,” commentator, Minnesota Public Radio.