Americans aren't worried so much about passing away at a young age as they are about dying in pain or with dementia, according to a new study.

A survey of 3,000 U.S. residents—a group weighted more toward those 55 and older—found that people's biggest fear was dying with dementia (34 percent), followed by dying in pain (32 percent), according to a report released Thursday by Merrill Lynch. Dying young was the chief fear of only 14 percent of respondents, followed by dying alone, 13 percent, and dying broke and in debt, 7 percent.

The data was part of a report entitled "Leaving A Legacy: A Lasting Gift to Young Ones," which delved into people's feelings about their heirs, their estate planning and their feelings about death in general.

Some of the results may not be surprising to advisors, who are well aware that the subject of death and the preparations needed to prepare for it can be a touchy subject with clients. The study, for example, predictably found that nearly half of U.S. residents age 55 and over do not have a will. Moreover, only 18 percent in that age group have a will, a health-care directive and a durable power of attorney.

But the report also explored client feelings that are sometimes hard for advisors to tap into, particularly their fears and hopes about their final days and the legacy they leave their heirs.

Based on the survey results, one possible takeaway for advisors is that, maybe, clients aren't as reluctant to talk about their own deaths as is commonly believed. Ninety percent of respondents said they are open to discussing their end-of-life preferences with family and friends, the report said. Among those 55 and older, 87 percent said it is a parent's responsibility to initiate a conversation with their children about their legacy.

Another finding that advisors may be interested in was that, when asked what they most want to be remembered for, leaving a lot of wealth to heirs was last on the list. The top response, cited by more than two-thirds of respondents, was "the memories I've shared with my loved ones," followed by the quality of their marriage or partnership; their passions, interests and hobbies; a successful career; and, finally, the amount of wealth they leave to heirs.

"I want my legacy to be that I was a good husband and father," one focus group participant was quoted as saying in the report. "I want to leave this world knowing that I've made a positive impact on my family's life."

When asked how they would define a "a life well lived," the chief response was "having a family and friends that love me" (94 percent), making a positive impact on society (75 percent), being successful in my career (27 percent), accumulating a lot of wealth (10 percent) and being well-known or famous (3 percent).

"The accomplishments we want mentioned in our eulogies aren't those featured on our resumes," said Ken Dychtwald, CEO of research firm Age Wave, which teamed with Merrill Lynch in producing the report. "It's who we are as people, who we loved and who loved us and how we made an impact on the lives of others."

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