Monday, February 16, 2009

Plan Ahead

I haven’t been adding to this blog for the last month because people have been dying and I’ve been attending funerals. And that does not include the other people who suffered losses to whom I sent condolences. It hasn’t been a good winter.

The first funeral had been planned and pre-paid years ago in all its details. I’ve never been a fan of such plans, but amazingly, this one worked. In the interim between signing on and now, the price of all the funeral appurtenances had skyrocketed. This family saved many thousands of dollars because they pre-paid. Plus, the bereaved family members left behind knew with certainty that the deceased person had wanted these exact arrangements. This was a blessing during a difficult emotional time. And since the person who died had been ill for a long time and medical bills were pouring in, this family didn’t have a lot of spare cash to fork over in a hurry for expensive arrangements. The result of pre-planning and pre-paying was no confusion for the family, no hurried decision-making, and no financial stress regarding the funeral.

The second funeral was arranged after a death that doctors would call predictable, but family members tend not to accept as inevitable. The person had serious health problems, but still, the end was a surprise. So no prior details had been worked out, and the funeral arrangements had to be decided during the stress of coping with an unanticipated death. In this case, the family was large and had substantial financial resources, so the huge expense of the funeral at today’s prices was not crippling. But all the decisions had to be made during the period of maximum shock and grief immediately after the person died. And the person who died may not have made known any wishes for funeral arrangements.

We all die, but many of us like to pretend we won’t. I remember a radio commercial years ago in which a man brings up the idea of life insurance and his wife gets upset and refuses to talk about it. Period. This is how many of us approach the inevitable outcomes of life. We pretend they won’t happen. We wince away from them. Women even go further into denial about death: we pretend that our husbands will outlive us. We do this even though men have a shorter average life span and husbands usually are older than we are, too. Statistically, the odds are that married women will end up as widows. But few of us plan for the long years of widowhood, or for the financial challenges of being a widow. Let alone for the funeral.

I’m not advocating one style of approaching one’s inevitable demise over another. Probably, the person who didn’t pre-plan knew that family members already had a reasonably clear idea of what would be the preferred funeral. And the person who pre-planned may have been over-meticulous. Funerals do tend to be generic, after all, even though different faiths and cultures have different customs. Regardless, both funerals were dignified affairs that did honor to the deceased.

But I do think that people ought to voice their opinions about what they want long before family members have to make the arrangements. If some of the arrangements are made in advance, so much the better, but sometimes, pre-paying has turned into a financial disaster because of dishonest funeral companies. It’s best to investigate state laws before pre-paying. In some states, all pre-payments must go into an escrow account, but if yours doesn’t offer that protection, pre-paying might be a major financial risk and should be avoided. Of course lately every investment seems like a risk, but an FDIC-insured savings account specifically earmarked for funeral costs is completely safe. Just make sure that the account is accessible to the family member who has to pay for funeral arrangements.

And by the way, leave a will. Nothing spells out your final wishes like a will, and inexpensive will forms are available online that are valid for all states. Living wills are available at hospitals. Durable powers of attorney are on the net, too, as are guidelines for funeral arrangements and local laws. It has never been so easy to plan ahead.

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