People love to make plans-the perfect wedding, that dream vacation, a comfortable retirement, the kitchen remodel. Making plans is one of the great joys of life- except for when it comes to making plans for the end of it.
Understandably, we don’t like to think about—much less make specific plans for—our own deaths or the death of a loved one. When we do, we’re often prompted by necessity—an illness, concern for the well-being of dependent children, or an insistent estate attorney or financial planner.
But, even then, most of our planning involves tax consequences and the disposition of assets. Those are certainly the most important parts of estate planning, but they’re not the only part.
Too often, we fail to plan for the events that almost always follow our own deaths. And, if the purpose of estate planning is to lessen the burden on those who are left behind and to ensure that the wishes of the deceased are followed, funeral planning should be an essential part of any estate plan.
When my own mother passed away last Spring, it was an event that put me on the other side of a terrible process. And even as an experienced estate attorney, I was dismayed by the amount of decisions (small and large) I had to make on behalf of my mother; and I had to make those choices at a time when grief left me barely capable of deciding on what to wear each day.
A lot of those decisions involved issues that, as an attorney, I had previously considered to be outside the “estate planning” process. I asked my clients if they had any burial wishes (i.e. cremation or burial), but that was the extent of it. The rest were details that I assumed were planned and decided within families. Unfortunately, as I learned the hard way, those details weren’t planned or even discussed within my own family, and now I assume this is the same for my clients and their families.
Many of the decisions are small and simple, and easily made while making the sometimes more complicated decisions regarding assets. They may seem fairly trivial compared to what is to be done with the family home or heirlooms, or how investment accounts are to be divided, and therefore, they are easily overlooked. But, to your loved ones, who care more about you than your possessions, your guidance in these matters will be every bit as important.
Based upon my own experience with my Mother’s funeral, here are some examples of things to consider:
- Funeral Home - The funeral home is important not only for the aesthetics of, or facilities for, any viewing or reception, but for the funeral director, who can be an invaluable source of advice and practical knowledge.
- Internment - Would you prefer to be buried or cremated? If buried, do you have a burial plot or a cemetery of choice? If you have a burial plot, do you have copies of the plot contract(s) to ensure there is in fact room for you to be buried? What kind of coffin would you prefer? Wood, metal, color, ornate or simple? Does your cemetery require a vault as well, and if so, what is your preference? Do you have a choice of clothing, a certain suit or dress, or something of sentimental value you want to be buried with? If cremated, would you like your ashes preserved in an urn or spread in some location? What kind of urn would you prefer?
- Service - Would you like a viewing, mass or a reception? A solemn and quiet occasion of remembrance, or a festive celebration of life with food and wine, and music? A small intimate gathering, or an open invitation to all those who knew and cared for you?Is there a church, synagogue, mosque or other place of worship that you would prefer to have your service? If so, is there a particular priest or cleric you would want to perform that service? A poem, a prayer, a passage from a book that you would like read? A favorite reading or gospel read? What music would you like played and do you have a preference who sings or plays at your funeral? Do you have a preference on pallbearers?
- Flowers – Do you have favorite flowers or colors that you want incorporated in the funeral sprays at the service and cemetery?
- Photos – Do you have a favorite photograph of yourself, that embodies who you were or how you lived your life, that you want people to remember you by?
- Memorial - Would you like a simple tombstone, or something more elaborate? What material or design? Is there a particular inscription you want? Are there other family members buried there that need to be included on the tombstone and if so, does your Executor have those details?
- Miscellaneous – Do you have any unusual wishes that your family and/or Executor needs to know about? For example, moving a buried relative to the family plot or language you want incorporated in your obituary or eulogy.
- Death Certificates- Your family should order extra Death Certificates from the funeral home, as they are readily available and less expensive than ordering them from Vital Statistics (which can take over six weeks). I suggest one Death Certificate for every account number (even if there are multiple accounts in one financial institution) and other assets (i.e. home, car), and about ten extra.
It’s not necessary that all or any of this be incorporated into your Will. In fact, it is better that the last plans of your life are kept somewhere easily found and separate from your testamentary documents. Wills may not be read until after the funeral is over.
Please understand that none of this planning will lessen your tax burden, or ensure the orderly administration of your estate. These considerations may have no economic value to you or anyone else. But perhaps to your grieving loved ones, they may be the most important plans you leave.
The High Swartz estate attorneys in Bucks County and Montgomery County support your decision to be proactive in protecting your family’s future. Our estate planning attorneys help you protect, preserve and manage your estate so you can reach your goals of safeguarding assets, planning for orderly business succession, minimizing inheritance taxes and making sure the benefits of your hard work go to your family.
The information above is general: we recommend that you consult an attorney regarding your specific circumstances. The content of this information is not meant to be considered as legal advice or a substitute for legal representation.