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First Will and Testament

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For young, striving New Yorkers, life revolves around how to get ahead (or, these days, how not to fall too far behind). What to leave behind -- and to whom -- doesn't usually factor into the equation. But now that mortality is on everyone's mind, even headlong thirtysomethings who once thought of themselves as immortal are wondering if they might need a will.

"The estate-planning practice has gone through the roof," says William L. Abrams, a partner at Abrams, Garfinkel & Rosen. "I've seen at least three new clients a week, and they're almost exclusively under 35. A lot of young celebrity clients and investment bankers are asking, 'What happens if I die?' "

If you die without a will in New York state, your estate automatically goes to your spouse, then your children, then parents, siblings, and so on -- an arrangement that's less than ideal for many Manhattanites. "I hate to take the line of New York as a collection of people who are alienated from their families," says Susan Mindell, a 38-year-old entertainment lawyer. "But if your family is not in tune with your life, think about who's going to be in charge of not only your assets but your wishes -- your legacy." Mindell and her partner had been sitting on drafts of their wills since last winter. "We weren't being reluctant, just lazy," she says. "Then 9/11 made us feel like we needed to make it happen."

Though Tanya Jensen, an editor, and Tom Hawver, a designer, got married in 1998, they didn't deal with their estate until a few weeks ago. "We chose not to think about it in an alarmist way," says Jensen, 28, who was amused to discover that you can even set up "a little trust fund for the dachshund."

But not everyone is ready to sign on the line. If drafting a will means facing the inevitable (and gaining some semblance of control over it), it's also a nuisance. And some are more diligent about the task than others. "You know, I have no idea," said one pregnant 32-year-old, when asked whether she and her spouse have a will. "It's one of those things we should have, right?"

Then there are those for whom the decision is made by a gaping absence of assets. "Are you kidding? I don't even have renter's insurance," says a single 29-year-old writer. "Wait, my parents wouldn't inherit my credit-card debt, would they?"

"No one else can be held responsible for your debts," assures John M. Olivieri, a lawyer at Dewey Ballantine. "However, your estate is responsible if your assets exceed your debts. Before you give your couch to somebody, technically your creditors would have a right to sell it."

Not too concerned about the fate of her Ikea sofa, the writer lets out a sigh of relief: "If my mom got my credit-card bill, she would kill me."


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