Making Funeral Arrangements in California
In California, you may name the person who will carry out your funeral arrangements. You can also provide detailed instructions about your final wishes and set aside funds to cover your funeral expenses, including the costs of burial or cremation.
Who Has the Right to Make Funeral Arrangements in California?
California law determines who can make decisions about funerals and body disposition -- that is, burial or cremation -- after someone dies. This right and responsibility goes to the following people, in order:
- you, if you write down instructions before you die
- your health care agent, if you name one in an advance directive
- your spouse or registered domestic partner
- your adult child, or a majority of your children if you have more than one
- your parents
- your siblings, or
- your next of kin.
You can give the job of making your final arrangements to a person who is not on the list, but you must do so in writing. (California Health and Safety Code §§ 7100 and 7100.1.) To avoid confusion, it’s best to make an advance directive and give your health care agent explicit permission to carry out your wishes.
For more information about making an advance directive in California, see California Living Wills and Advance Health Care Directives.
Note that, if you are in the military, you may name the person who will carry out your final wishes in the Record of Emergency Data provided by the Department of Defense.
Who Pays for Funeral Costs in California?
The most recent statistics from the National Funeral Directors Association put the average cost of a funeral at more than $7,000. That figure doesn’t cover many common expenses such as cemetery costs, markers, flowers, or obituaries. For many people, after a house and a car, funeral goods and services are the most expensive thing they’ll ever buy. It’s smart to make a plan to pay for these costs.
You have two basic options for covering your funeral expenses, including the costs of burial or cremation. You can:
- pay in advance, or
- leave enough money for your survivors to pay the bills.
If you don’t do either of these things, California law requires your survivors to cover the costs of your funeral arrangements. (California Health and Safety Code § 7100.)
Paying in advance. If you want to pay for your funeral arrangements ahead of time, make sure you’re dealing with a reputable funeral establishment and clearly document any plans you make, so your survivors can easily carry them out. Though the law requires providers of funeral goods and services to carefully manage your funds (see California Business and Professions Code §§ 7735-7746), abuses do happen. What’s more, if a funeral establishment goes out of business, your careful planning may be lost.
For more information, see The Prepaid Funeral and Its Perils.
Setting aside funds. The safest and easiest way to cover the costs of your final arrangements is to estimate costs and tuck away the funds in an easily accessible, interest-earning bank account. You can designate a beneficiary who can claim the funds immediately after your death. Make sure the beneficiary understands what the money is for, however, and that you trust him or her completely, because the beneficiary is under no legal obligation to use the funds for your final arrangements.
For more information about setting up an account to cover the costs of your final arrangements, see Payable-on-Death (POD) Accounts: The Basics.
Writing Down Your Funeral Plans
Letting your survivors know what kind of funeral arrangements you envision -- including your wishes for ceremonies and whether you want to be buried or cremated -- will save them the difficulty of making these decisions during an emotional and stressful time.
In California, the funeral instructions you write down will be legally binding if:
- they are clear, complete, and unambiguous, and
- you have made payment arrangements in advance or you have set aside sufficient funds to cover your plans.
Nolo offers several tools to help you document your wishes for final arrangements. Each one walks you step-by-step through the process, so you won’t miss any important issues.
- Quicken WillMaker Plus can create a final arrangements document for you. The software program asks you questions about your wishes and then produces a detailed document you can give to others.
- Get It Together: Organize Your Records So Your Family Won't Have To, by Melanie Cullen with Shae Irving, is a workbook that provides a complete system for documenting information for your executor and family members, including your wishes for final arrangements.
- Nolo’s Final Arrangements Kit includes all the basic forms and instructions you need to document your final wishes.
Where to Store Your Funeral Plans
While there are many ways to write down your wishes for final arrangements and make them clear, here’s a firm piece of advice to follow: Don’t put them in your will. Your will may not be read until weeks after your death -- far too late to help your survivors. It’s better to prepare a separate document.
Store your final arrangements paperwork in a safe place and be sure your loved ones know where to look when the time comes. It may be helpful to make copies and tell them where to find the originals when they’re needed. If you do so, be sure to keep a list of everyone with copies, in case you need to get them back and change them later.
To find out more about California laws covering funeral arrangements, including consumer protection laws, see California’s Consumer Guide to Funeral and Cemetery Purchases.
To learn more about making your final arrangements, see Getting Your Affairs in Order on Nolo.com.
For details on the rules that control disposing of remains in California, see Burial and Cremation Laws in California.