WillMaker's Final Arrangements Document

Most people avoid the subject of death—and are especially uncomfortable thinking about their own mortality. You, too, may be tempted to leave the details of your final arrangements, those who survive you. But there are two good reasons not to do this: care and cost.

Making Final Arrangements in Advance

Anyone who has lost a loved one knows how agonizing it can be to plan an appropriate commemoration. And most people have attended funerals or memorial services that seem uniquely unsuited to the person who has died.

Letting your survivors know whether you'd like to be buried or cremated, and what kind of ceremonies you envision, saves them the pain of making such decisions at a difficult time. Many family members and friends also find that an open discussion is a great relief—especially if death is likely to occur soon.

Planning some of these details in advance and doing wise comparison shopping can also save money. For many people, after buying a home and car, after-death goods and services are the most expensive things they ever pay for.

Without some direction, your survivors may choose the most expensive goods and services available, to assuage their own feelings of grief or obligation or perhaps due to pressure from funeral industry providers. The best way to prevent this from happening is to write down your preferences. You can use this program to do just that, creating a final arrangements document to point the way for your loved ones.

Despite what many people think, a will is a poor place to express your death and burial preferences. It probably won't be located and read until several weeks after you die—too late to help your family. It's better to write up a separate document such as the one you can prepare with this program.

The Legal Effect of Your Document

Your final arrangements document provides valuable guidance for your family members. It will tell them what kind of body disposition and services you want and direct them to any sources you've set aside for payment. As long as your wishes are reasonable and financially feasible, they should be carried out as you intend.

If relationships among your loved ones are amicable, this should be all you need. You can talk with those who will be most likely to carry out your wishes and give them a copy of your instructions—or be sure they know where to find them when the time comes.

If a dispute arises among your loved ones—for example, between your partner or spouse and other relatives—funeral industry personnel are usually bound to follow any written instructions you left. The greatest sticking points arise when the deceased person has not provided in advance for payment of the arrangements.

Court battles over preferences for body or funeral ceremonies almost never arise, primarily because of the lack of time and the costs of litigation.

Most disputes arise where more than one person is in charge—say you have three children—and they disagree over a fundamental decision, such as whether your body should be buried or cremated. Such disputes can be avoided or minimized if you put your wishes in writing.

If You're Worried About Family Fights

If you are concerned that your family may not agree with your final wishes—or if you expect them to argue with each other after your death—you can add legal force to your document by combining it with a health care directive.

It may not be possible to make your wishes ironclad. (State laws on the subject vary widely, and many are unclear or full of loopholes.) But a health care directive can help, primarily by allowing you to appoint someone to be sure your postdeath preferences are carried out.

The primary function of a health care directive is to set out wishes for medical treatment in an emergency or at the end of life. And one of the most important parts of making a health care directive is naming your health care agent—that is, the person who will oversee your medical care and make treatment decisions for you if you are unable to do so yourself. You can also give your health care agent the power to carry out your wishes for the disposition of your body and other final arrangements. (Using this program, you can make a health care directive that specifically includes this power.)

To provide guidance for your agent, you can simply attach your final arrangements document to your health care directive. After your death, if family members object to your wishes or squabble with each other about what's best, your health care agent is legally authorized to step in to ensure that you get what you wanted.

Exceptions to the Rule: Kentucky, New Jersey, and New Mexico

These states require that you use a document other than a health care directive to name the person who will oversee your final arrangements.

  • In Kentucky, you must use the state-authorized form "Funeral Planning Declaration." (Ky. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 367.93117.) You may be able to find a PDF of the official form on the website of the Kentucky Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors at https://kbefd.ky.gov.
  • In New Jersey, you must use either your will or the state-authorized form "Appointment of Agent to Control the Funeral and Disposition of Remains." (N.J. Stat. Ann. §45:27-22.) You may be able to find a PDF of this form on the website of the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs at www.njconsumeraffairs.gov.

In Kentucky or New Jersey, we recommend that you 1) use the state's official form to name your representative, and then 2) attach your final arrangements document to that form.

  • In New Mexico, to designate someone who is legally authorized to carry out your final arrangements you must use a will. (N.M. Stat. Ann. § 45-3-701.)

Unfortunately, as mentioned above, a will is generally not the best place to address these matters. If you live in New Mexico (or any other state) and you're worried that your closest family members will fight over your final arrangements, you may want to see a qualified estate planning lawyer to minimize conflict and ensure that your wishes are respected.

What Happens If There Is No Document

  • If you die without leaving written instructions about your preferences, state law determines who has the right to control how your remains will be disposed. In most states, the right—and the responsibility to pay— rests with the following people, in order:
  • spouse or registered domestic partner
  • child or children
  • parent or parents
  • next of kin, or
  • a court-appointed public administrator.

Getting Started

Before you jump into the details of your final arrangements document, you may want to spend some time thinking about the big picture. It may be easier to answer specific questions once you have a general sense of what you want.

How to approach this is up to you. You may find it helpful to talk with family or friends about end-of-life issues, reflecting on what appeals to you—and what doesn't. Perhaps you have participated in after-death events that you have particularly liked, or where you have felt noticeably uncomfortable. All these things can help to point the way.

If you want to do some additional research, you might browse the Funeral Consumers Alliance website at www.funerals.org. This nonprofit organization's consumers section is a good place to begin exploring your options.

When you're ready, this program invites you to put the details in writing.

We'll guide you through a number of topics, one at a time:

  • burial or cremation
  • mortuary or cremation facility
  • embalming
  • casket or urn
  • pallbearers
  • transportation to burial site
  • headstone, monument, or burial marker
  • epitaph
  • funeral or memorial ceremonies
  • obituary, and
  • financial plans.

You need to answer only the questions you want to. While it helps to be as specific as possible, your final arrangements document can be as brief or as extensive as you wish. If there is an issue you don't care to address, simply skip it. If you like, you can always come back to the program later, either to change your answers or create a more detailed document.

What to Do With Your Finished Document

After you have printed, dated, and signed your final arrangements document, you may need to take a few more steps to ensure it works as you intend.

If you have paperwork to keep with your document, such as receipts or contracts, gather everything together. Attach the papers to your final arrangements document or create a binder or folder where you can store everything in the same place.

If you'll use your final arrangements document in conjunction with a health care directive (as discussed above), you should attach your final arrangements document to the directive.

Store your documents where your loved ones can readily find them. You may want to make photocopies for people who should be aware of your wishes, and tell them where to find the originals, if necessary. It's a good idea to keep a list of folks to whom you've given copies, in case you need to retrieve them later.

Changing or Revoking Your Document

You can change or cancel your document at any time. There is no formal way to do this, so simply tear up the original. If you've given copies to others, be sure to get those copies back so you can destroy them, too. Then make a new document that reflects your current wishes.