Funeral Planning FAQ
Planning our own funeral means confronting our own mortality. For some, this may cause introspection, nostalgia, and even some vague discomfort. For others, it may seem like just another one of life's responsibilities.
Either way, making end-of-life plans involves a number of practical considerations. How would you like your remains handled when you die? Who will you entrust to carry out your wishes? How will expenses be paid?
Each person's answers to these questions will be highly personal. As you figure out the answers for yourself, this article flags some important points to bear in mind.
Benefits of Preplanning Your Funeral
There are several benefits to planning your own funeral. First, final wishes generally reflect individual values, and some people find a sense of comfort or empowerment in knowing that their end-of-life decisions will be their own. Though each person's values may differ, making end-of-life decisions ourselves can feel like a final confirmation of the convictions that give our lives meaning.
Second, if you do not make a plan ahead of time, one must be made quickly when you die. This can be extremely burdensome on your grieving family members. Failure to provide instructions can even create conflict among loved ones trying to make difficult decisions on your behalf.
Finally, planning ahead is the best way to reduce funeral costs. It may seem like a cruel irony that, even in death, bills must be paid. Irony aside, funeral arrangements can be quite expensive. Knowing how these final expenses will be covered gives you and your loved ones some peace of mind.
Who Will Arrange My Funeral If I Do Not?
The person responsible for handling your estate when you die is known as your “personal representative." Unless otherwise specified, this person is generally also responsible for making your funeral arrangements.
Your personal representative may be appointed in your will, in which case they are sometimes known as an “executor." If a will does not exist, your personal representative will be appointed by a probate court, in which case they are sometimes known as an “administrator."
When a will does not exist, courts distribute your estate and appoint a representative based on state laws of intestate succession. Though laws vary from state to state, they generally distribute and appoint based on the following hierarchy: spouse, children, parents, siblings, grandparents, and next of kin.
You may feel comfortable relying on a court-appointed representative to handle your funeral. However, the extremely personal nature of losing a loved one often leads to family conflict. For example, if an excluded family member feels personally entitled to participate in the decision-making, they may contest the court's appointment. This kind of strife can be extremely taxing on your loved ones, as well as on your estate as it funds ongoing litigation.
Why Not Leave Funeral Instructions in My Will?
A last will and testament is an important document that is the cornerstone of your estate plan. However, when it comes to planning your funeral, your will should serve as a last resort. Why? Because wills are often not read or accessible until weeks—sometimes even months—after the testator's death. By then, it will likely be too late to carry out your funeral instructions.
Instead, consider leaving end-of-life instructions in an advance health care directive. These are legally binding documents that explain how you would like your health care decisions to be made in the event you become incapacitated. Depending on the laws of your state, they can also be used to leave funeral instructions.
Additionally, you can leave a simple "Letter of Instruction." This informal document explains your end-of-life wishes and can be attached to your will. Though not legally binding, it can go a long way in clarifying your wishes to your personal representative and loved ones.
What Should My Instructions Include?
Funeral rites often carry intense cultural, religious, or philosophical significance. As a result, funeral plans are as diverse as they are personal. However, the following list should help you begin thinking about the details you would like to address in yours:
- What funeral provider will handle your remains?
- Do you want your body to be cremated, buried, or embalmed?
- If buried or embalmed, where would you like your remains interred (e.g., in-ground burial, above-ground crypt, private mausoleum, natural burial)?
- If cremated, where would you like your ashes stored or spread?
- Would you like a grave marker (e.g., a tombstone, monument, or plaque)?
- Would you like a ceremony and, if so, what kind (full funeral service, graveside service, direct burial, direct cremation, scattering ceremony, memorial service, wake, visitation, etc.)?
- What is your preferred ceremony venue (e.g., place of worship, funeral home, graveside)?
- How would you like your body transported (hearse, pallbearers, etc.)?
- Who should be specifically notified of your death and invited to your ceremony?
- How will your funeral expenses be paid?
What Services Do Funeral Homes Provide?
Also known as “mortuaries," funeral homes provide a range of goods and services. You can pick and choose according to your needs. Basic goods and services typically include:
- Coffins, caskets, cremation urns;
- Transporting the body from the place of death to the funeral home;
- Preparing the body as needed (embalming, washing, dressing, cremating, etc.);
- Storing the body until its final disposition;
- Transferring the body to its final resting place;
- Preparing and filing necessary paperwork (e.g., death certificate and certified copies);
- Composing and/or publishing an obituary; and
- Organizing and conducting requested ceremonies.
How to Pay for Your Funeral?
Funerals are surprisingly expensive. According to the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA), the median total cost of a funeral with viewing and burial in 2021 reached $7,848. In the same year, a funeral with viewing and cremation cost a median of $6,970.
If you do not plan ahead, these funeral costs can create a significant headache for your grieving family and friends. That said, there are many ways to plan ahead.
- Life Insurance. Sometimes known as “burial insurance" or “funeral insurance" when purchased in this context, a life insurance policy can be an effective way of covering your end-of-life expenses. Instead of one large funeral bill, you can pay an affordable monthly premium in exchange for a sizable payout when you die. Because life insurance proceeds avoid probate the beneficiary receives the funds directly from the insurance company.
- Funeral Trust. A trust is a property arrangement where a grantor (sometimes known as a trustor or settlor) transfers assets to be managed by a trustee on behalf of a beneficiary. In a funeral trust, the grantor sets aside assets to cover their own end-of-life expenses. The trustee may be an institution (e.g., a trust company or bank) or a trustworthy individual. The beneficiary would be a funeral establishment of your choice.
- Payable-On-Death (POD) Account. Also known as a “Totten trust," a POD account is simply a financial account (e.g., a bank account or investment account) with a named beneficiary. When the owner dies, the assets avoid probate and are immediately transferred to the beneficiary. You can provide just enough funds to cover end-of-life expenses.
- Veteran Benefits. Veterans, service members, and some family members may be eligible for burial in a Veteran's Association National Cemetery. At no cost to the family, benefits include burial, perpetual care, a government headstone, a burial flag, and a Presidential Memorial Certificate. Cremations are also available with full death benefits. Some veterans may also be eligible for a burial allowance.
- Savings Account. You can always reserve funds in a savings account to fully cover or supplement your end-of-life expenses.
- Credit Cards and Loans. Taking on debt to pay for funeral expenses is, of course, the least attractive option. That said, it allows you to cover funeral expenses while paying down the debt in installments. It may also provide a short-term solution when the necessary funds are available but not yet accessible.
Beware of Funeral Prepayment Plans
As you shop around, beware of prepaid funeral plans. Sadly, unscrupulous funeral providers often take advantage of vulnerable consumers looking for an easy funeral-planning solution. Though funeral homes are highly regulated as a result, regulations vary widely from state to state. Find your state's Funeral Licensing Board & Requirements here.
The funeral home industry is also regulated by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which combats deceptive practices by enforcing the “Funeral Rule." See your full rights under the FTC's Funeral Rule here.
Among other things, the Funeral Rule requires that funeral providers—both licensed and unlicensed—give each customer a physical price list that they can take home. The list should include all funeral goods and services offered by the provider, allowing consumers to shop on an itemized basis. This is meant to stop providers from pressuring vulnerable consumers into buying overpriced funeral “packages."
A few of the many pitfalls you may encounter with a prepaid funeral plan are:
- The funds you prepay are misused, lost, or stolen;
- The service provider goes out of business, leaving you with no recourse to reclaim your money;
- You make a non-refundable prepayment and then move to another city where the provider does not operate; or
- The prepaid funds are insufficient to cover future costs (e.g., burial plots become more expensive before the provider makes a purchase).
Questions About Funeral Planning? Talk to an Attorney.
Creating your end-of-life plan now makes things easier when the inevitable finally arrives. In particular, preparing funeral instructions now provides some assurance that your final wishes will be honored and that your loved ones will not be forced to make painful decisions as they mourn your loss. Whether drafting enforceable funeral instructions or exploring options to fund your end-of-life expenses, a local estate planning attorney can help you make informed decisions.
Can I Solve This on My Own or Do I Need an Attorney?
- DIY is possible in some simple cases
- Complex estate planning situations usually require a lawyer
- A lawyer can reduce the chances of a family dispute
- You can always have an attorney review your forms
Get tailored advice and ask your legal questions. Many attorneys offer free consultations.