This is a subject matter that nobody really wants to talk about; in fact I have had clients literally refuse to discuss this subject matter because they thought that if they talked about it, it would happen quickly. The subject matter is death and, I am sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but unless Jesus returns soon (which I hope he does), this is the reality for all of us. You can delay it for a long time with a healthy lifestyle and good choices, but the truth of the matter is that at some point God calls us to leave this earth.
Now, I am not going to spend a lot of time focusing on the theology aspect of this subject matter, although I will hope that you have accepted the Grace of God given through the blood of Jesus Christ for all of us. Instead, I will focus on the legal aspect and what normally occurs when a person dies. When I am listing these points, they are steps that I have personally observed as an attorney who has administered multiple estates and trust estates, so I am speaking from experience, but some of these points will vary with each situation. Here are some things to think about and prepare for:
- Your funeral, (If you want one). Sadly, most of us have probably attended a funeral at some point in our lives. A funeral is a time where your loved ones can find healing and closure at the time of your death, but it is not required. However, I strongly recommend that you take some time to pre-plan your funeral to ensure that your loved ones know exactly how the event will occur. I have been a witness to many family fights that happened due to how a person was dressed in their casket, what pictures are hung at the service, who are the pallbearers, etc. It is an emotionally charged time, thus it is easy for families to become very volatile during the first days after your death. I HIGHLY recommend that you take some time to sit down with a funeral home director and make sure that all of the details of your funeral are specifically indicated, as it will literally prevent your loved ones from potentially fighting during this difficult time. I also recommend that you prepay your funeral, as it can literally save your loved ones thousands of dollars for this expense when you die. There are many investment options available that are similar to a life-insurance style policy that will pay for your funeral expenses when you die. However, keep in mind that you DO NOT need to have a funeral service if you do not want one. As I always tell people, funeral services are for the living and not for the deceased. It is a time for your loved ones to say their final goodbye and come together to celebrate the events of your life. However, if you do not wish to have a funeral service, it is important to clearly indicate this decision during your lifetime.
- Your cremation or burial. Obviously when you die there must be a decision made regarding the disposition of your remains. It is extremely helpful for your loved ones if you leave an indication regarding your final wishes in this area, as the funeral home can hold on to your remains until they have a unanimous decision from your family regarding whether your remains will be buried or cremated. I always advise my clients to indicate their wishes regarding burial or cremation in their Healthcare Power of Attorney, as it will be honored at the time of your death.
- Your bills have to be paid. This is a very important fact that must be planned for. When you die, your assets are still here, including the debts that might go along with them. Now, there are some exceptions to this fact, such as student loans, which can be forgiven at your death. However, many of your debts will still need to be paid even after you have died. This is the one question I receive the most often from the acting Executors or Trustees of an estate when they first start the administration. The first responsibility of your acting Executor/Trustee is that they must resolve your debts out of the remainder of your estate, if there is anything left. If those debts are not paid, the creditors could file a claim against your estate or begin a foreclosure process to ensure that they are compensated for the debt that you created during your lifetime. There are some circumstances where the debt might be so small that the creditor will forgive the debt, but you cannot expect that to always happen and you should not want to burden your loved ones with financial struggles when you are gone. This is also why it is so crucial to establish an estate plan whereby you can indicate who is appointed as the Executor or Trustee of your assets when you are gone and can then resolve the issue of your final debts.
- Your estate will be administered. If you have read any of my previous articles, and I hope that you have, you will know that after you have died, your assets will either be subject to the probate laws of your state or will be administered through your Revocable Living Trust. Hopefully you have read my previous articles about how to avoid the probate process and have your assets administered according to your trust agreement. Either way, your assets will be distributed to the people that you want them to go to or it will be determined by the probate laws of your state.
- Your Last Will and Testament must be filed with the Circuit Clerk. Assuming that you have prepared some type of Last Will and Testament, upon your death it is normally required by law for your named Executor to file your Will with the Circuit Clerk’s office of the County that you were a resident of at the time of your passing. Many states actually can charge the Executor with a felony charge if they do not file the Will within the required statutory time frame. This is required to prevent the Executor from commencing any type of fraudulent activities with your estate or failing to pay your final expenses.
These are some of the basic starting points of what occurs when a person dies. There are many additional steps that can occur, especially if you have not taken the time to resolve these issues during your lifetime. Just like birth, dying is a natural life process that we must all face. The question that remains is are you going to make the mature and responsible decisions to ensure that these issues are handled in a responsible manner and that your loved ones will not face unnecessary burdens upon your passing, or are you comfortable with leaving chaos that will be resolved after some unnecessary stress and financial burdens? I hope you make the right choice and take care of those you love.