Final Arrangements FAQ

What happens if I don't leave written instructions for my final ceremonies and the disposition of my body?

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Why should I leave written instructions for my final ceremonies and the disposition of my body?

If you die without leaving written instructions about your preferences, state law determines 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:

  • your spouse or registered domestic partner
  • your adult children
  • your parents
  • your next of kin, or
  • a public administrator, who is appointed by a court.

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. Such disputes can be avoided if you are willing to do some planning and to put your wishes in writing.

In most 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. (For more information about making a health care power of attorney, see The Living Will and Power of Attorney for Health Care: An Overview.)

Just two states -- New Jersey and New Mexico -- require that you use your will to appoint the person who will oversee your final arrangements.

For more information, see Making Funeral Arrangements in Your State.

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