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How To: Pre-arrange your funeral

November 13, 2009

When a loved one dies, grieving family members and friends often are confronted with dozens of decisions about the funeral all of which must be made quickly and often under emotional duress.

What kind of funeral should it be? What funeral provider should you use? What are you legally required to buy? What other arrangements should you plan? And how much is it going to cost? Each year, Americans grapple with these and many other questions as they spend billions of dollars arranging more than 2 million funerals for family members and friends. The increasing trend toward pre-need planning -- when people make funeral arrangements in advance -- suggests that many consumers want to compare prices and services so the funeral reflects a wise and well informed purchasing decision, as well as a meaningful one.

Pre-need: To help relieve their families of some of these decisions, an increasing number of people are planning their own funerals, designating their funeral preferences, and sometimes even paying for them in advance. They see funeral planning as an extension of will and estate planning.

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Planning: Thinking ahead can help you make informed and thoughtful decisions about funeral arrangements. It allows you to choose the specific items you want and need and compare the prices offered by several funeral providers.

It also spares your survivors the stress of making these decisions under the pressure of time and strong emotions. One other important consideration when planning a funeral pre-need is where the remains will be buried.

In the short time between the death and burial of a loved one, many family members find themselves rushing to buy a cemetery plot or grave -- often without careful thought or a personal visit to the site. That's why it's in your best interest to buy cemetery plots before you need them.

You might wish to make decisions about your arrangements in advance, but not pay for them in advance.

Keep in mind that over time, prices might go up. Put your preferences in writing, give copies to family members and your attorney, and keep a copy in a handy place.

Don't designate your preferences in your will, because a will often is not found or read until after the funeral. Avoid putting the only copy of your preferences in a safe deposit box. Your family might have to make arrangements on a weekend or holiday, before the box can be opened.

Prepaying: Millions of Americans have entered into contracts to prearrange their funerals and prepay some or all of the expenses involved. Laws of individual states govern the prepayment of funeral goods and services; various states have laws to help ensure that these advance payments are available.

But protections vary widely from state to state, and some state laws offer little or no effective protection. Some state laws require the funeral home or cemetery to place a percentage of the prepayment in a state regulated trust or to purchase a life insurance policy with the death benefits assigned to the funeral home or cemetery.

Be sure to tell your family about the plans you've made. Let them know where the documents are filed.

If your family isn't aware that you've made plans, your wishes might not be carried out. And if family members don't know that you've prepaid the funeral costs, they could end up paying for the same arrangements.

You might wish to consult an attorney on the best way to ensure that your wishes are followed. What kind of funeral do you want? Every family is different, and not everyone wants the same type of funeral.

Funeral practices are influenced by religious and cultural traditions, costs, and personal preferences. These factors help determine whether the funeral will be elaborate or simple, public or private, religious or secular, burial or creamation, and where it will be held. They also influence whether the body will be present at the funeral, if there will be a viewing or visitation, and if so, whether the casket will be open or closed.

Choosing a funeral provider: Many people don't realize that they are not legally required to use a funeral home to plan and conduct a funeral. However, because they have little experience with the many details and legal requirements involved and might be emotionally distraught when it's time to make the plans, many people find the services of a professional funeral home to be a comfort.

Consumers often select a funeral home or cemetery because it's close to home, has served the family in the past, or has been recommended by someone they trust. But people who limit their search to just one funeral home might risk paying more than necessary for the funeral or narrowing their choice of goods and services. If the general price list does not include specific prices of caskets or outer burial containers, the law requires the funeral director to show you the price lists for those items before showing you the items.

When comparing prices, be sure to consider the total cost of all the items together, in addition to the costs of single items.. Federal law regulates that every funeral home must have price lists that include all the items essential for the different types of arrangements it offers.

Many funeral homes offer package funerals that might cost less than purchasing individual items or services. Offering package funerals is permitted by federal law, as long as an itemized price list also is provided.

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