Planning some of the details of your burial or cremation -- and your memorial services -- can be a great relief to your survivors.
Letting your survivors know your wishes spares them the difficulty of making these decisions at a painful time. And many family members and friends find that discussing these matters ahead of time is great relief -- especially if a person is elderly or in poor health and death is expected soon.
Making plans can also save money. For many people, death goods and services cost more than anything they bought during their lives except homes and cars. Some wise comparison shopping in advance can ensure that costs will be controlled.
A will is not a good place to express your death and burial preferences for one simple reason: Your will might not be located and read until several weeks after you die -- long after decisions must be made.
A will should be reserved for directions on how to divide and distribute your property and, if applicable, who should get care and custody of your children if you die while they're still young.
You have many options for writing down your wishes and plans. If you like, you can write a simple letter to your executor and other loved ones that spells out the details of your final arrangements. If you need help organizing your thoughts, Nolo offers two resources that can help:
Whatever method you choose, be certain to talk to your loved ones about your plans. If you write down what you want, let them know where the information is stored and how to get to it when the time comes.
Finally, it's a good idea to review your plans every year or two to be sure they still reflect your wishes. Update your letter or other instructions if you change any of the details of your arrangements.
If you die without leaving written instructions about your preferences, state law will usually determine who will have the right to decide how your remains will be handled. In most states, the right -- and the responsibility to pay for the reasonable costs of disposing of remains -- rests with the following people, in order:
Disputes may arise if two or more people -- the deceased person's children, for example -- share responsibility for a fundamental decision, such as whether the body of a parent should be buried or cremated. But such disputes can be avoided if you are willing to do some planning and to put your wishes in writing.
In an increasing number of states, if you make a health care power of attorney, you can give the person you name to make health care decisions for you (your "agent") the power to make decisions about your remains. But, even if you do this, you may want to leave written instructions about your wishes. Your health care agent will be legally required to follow your directions, though he or she is not required to pay for the arrangements -- the money will come from your assets or family members who are legally required to pay.
What you choose to include is a personal matter, likely to be dictated by custom, religious preference, or simply your own whims. A typical final arrangements document might include:
Most mortuaries or funeral homes are equipped to handle many of the details related to disposing of a person's remains. These include:
Note that the costs of these services vary dramatically, however. It is essential that you shop around if cost is an important part of your decision.
From an economic standpoint, choosing the institution to handle your burial is probably the most important final arrangement that you can make. For this reason, many people join memorial or funeral societies, which help them find local mortuaries that will deal honestly with their survivors and charge reasonable prices.
Society members are free to choose whatever final arrangements they wish. Most societies, however, emphasize simple arrangements over the costly services often promoted by the funeral industry. The services offered by each society differ, but most societies distribute information on options and explain the legal rules that apply to final arrangements.
If you join a society, you will receive a form that allows you to plan for the goods and services you want -- and to get them for a predetermined cost. Many societies also serve as watchdogs, making sure that you get and pay for only the services you choose.
The cost for joining these organizations is low -- usually from $20 to $40 for a lifetime membership, although some societies periodically charge a small renewal fee.
To find a funeral or memorial society near you, look in the Yellow Pages of your telephone book under Funeral Information and Advisory Services, or contact the Funeral Consumers Alliance at 800-765-0107, or online at www.funerals.org.
If you don't want to join a society, you can look for a mortuary or funeral home on your own. You'll have to shop around to find the institution that best meets your needs in terms of style, location, and cost. But beware of plans that require you to pay in advance; it's better to set aside your own fund to cover funeral goods and services.
(For more information, see The Perils of Funeral Prepayment Plans.)
Cona Elder Law is a full service law firm based in Melville, LI. Our firm concentrates in the areas of elder law, estate planning, estate administration and litigation, special needs planning and health care facility representation. We are proud to have been recognized for our innovative strategies, creative techniques and unparalleled negotiating skills unendingly driven toward our paramount objective - satisfying the needs of our clients.
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