Although it is generally an uncomfortable truth, your departure will trigger the need for a number of decisions.  If you do not make decisions concerning your last wishes, you are effectively choosing to burden your loved ones with the responsibility for these decisions.

In order to ease the burden on your loved ones, it is generally a responsible decision to carefully consider your last wishes beforehand in order to help minimize your family members’ distress during the difficult time period immediately following your death. These final wishes should then be written into a funeral plan or other form of final instructions.

Funeral Plan – Your Final Instructions

Among other matters you may also wish to include, you should leave instructions specifying:

1. What you would like done with your body.  Examples of common preferences include burial, cremation, or donation to science.  Your driver’s license or other state identification will generally identify whether you are an organ donor, but you should also make this intention known to those closest to you.

2. Funeral arrangements.  This includes, without limitation:

  • Any information concerning a cemetery, burial plot, or other prepaid plan or services you may have purchased;
  • Any information on any account you may have set up to pay funeral expenses;
  • The place you want the services performed, and by whom (clergy person and others you wish to speak).  If you are cremated, the location at which you want your ashes spread;
  • Transportation of your body to the place of the funeral (especially if you have made funeral arrangements requiring interstate or international transportation of your body);
  • Plans concerning embalming and other preparation of the body;
  • Preferences on readings, flowers (or memorial donation), music, photos, and memorial cards;
  • Selecting a headstone or tomb when applicable;
  • Providing for a limousine for your family (if desired) and a hearse for your body (if applicable);
  • Any plans for a post-service meal or other gathering;
  • Information you want included in your obituary.

Assembling and Strategically Storing Essential Information.

You should also ensure that key documents and information is available including, without limitation:

1. Where to find your will and other documents from your estate plan (such as any trust documents and other like documents).

2. The location of your pension documents, retirement plans, and other benefit plans, and insurance plans/documents (including policy numbers, addresses and phone numbers of insurance companies, agencies, or administrators that control your death benefits, such as any union, employer, government agency, or other third party);

3. The location of any safety deposit box and key;

4. The location of any important records you have, such as social security card, driver’s license/state identification card, birth/adoption certificate, marriage certificate, any divorce certificate or decree, prenuptial agreement and any related documents, any stock certificates and bonds you own, any buy-sell agreement to which you are a party, other important business records, and any important financial records; and

5. The identity, address, and phone number of your lawyer, insurance agent, benefit plan administrator, and executor (and trustee if applicable).

Practical Note - Where to Capture and Keep Your Funeral Instructions

You should not put your funeral wishes in your will. This instrument is often not read or accessible until weeks, if not months, after your death.  A will is not the proper place to specify your funeral plans and wishes.  Instead, you should leave a set of Final Instructions with a responsible party (often your executor) specifying your funeral plans and other related final matters.

Prepaid Funeral Arrangements – A Financial Consideration

Funeral expenses can be expensive and frequently catch families by surprise.  Studies estimate that the current average cost for a traditional funeral in the United States typically ranges from between $6,500 and $10,000. This price range includes the preparation and services at the funeral home, burial in a cemetery, and the purchase and installation of a headstone.  The cost for those who opt for cremation are typically much lower, but still notable (ranging on average between $1,300 and $2,500 depending on certain memorial preferences).  Additional costs for common features, such as elegant flower arrangements and a post-funeral lunch can add thousands more.  Adding in common estate expenses, such as court costs and attorneys’ fees is yet a third element in the cost pool.

As a matter of personal financial planning and estate planning, it is common for individuals and even families to pre-purchase certain final amenities prior to dying.  The most common examples include purchasing burial plots, crypts, or tombs, purchasing headstones, and even pre-paying for funeral expenses. These undertakings can help spread out the cost of death over a longer period of time, lessening the blow of some of the major costs that otherwise often accompanies death.

One important point to consider is that no industry, including death-related services, is free from dishonest, and at times even criminal, individuals and businesses.  You would hopefully not jump into a car purchase without confidence in both the vehicle and the seller.  This is similar given the amount of money at issue.  People dealing with their own pending death or the death of a loved one are especially vulnerable, which makes them an easy target for criminals and fraud.  If you pre-purchase any services (whether funeral services, cremation, or other related services) or product (such as a casket or burial plot), make sure the person or people selling the product or service are who they claim they are.  Never purchase from a third party who initiates the sales discussion with you (meaning that you should go to the chosen retailer or service provider to initiate the discussion, not the other way around).  Verify the seller’s business has a good reputation and has a long history of being in that business. The Better Business Bureau (BBB) is a good place to look for some initial consumer feedback on a service provider.   Make sure any and all contract terms are in writing, and also make sure the contract is a “fixed-price contract” (meaning that the costs are fixed and not subject to increase over time).  This list of precautions concerning pre-purchasing goods and services is by no means an exhaustive list and due caution is required on your part.

Professional Counseling

While all death is sad, some circumstances of death are especially trying on the decedent’s family.  For example: (a) the impact of a parent’s death on a minor child; (b) the impact of the death of a young spouse on the other young spouse; and (c) the impact of the death of a child on parents, are among some of the most tragic losses people can experience.  When you know the death of a loved one is likely to occur in the near future, you may consider locating a psychologist, bereavement counselor, or trusted clergy member to help your family cope with their grief.  This individual can be briefed on the situation in order to have a better understanding of the pending occurrence, and have a more immediate impact on the aggrieved. Even if they do not elect to use this person’s services, having the option may be of some benefit.

Failing to Write down your Funeral Final Instructions

If you do not leave written instructions for your funeral, state law will determine who bears the responsibility of making these decisions.  This burden can entail additional, unnecessary grief and can be avoided with proper action on your part.