How To Get Prepared For Death

by Paul Konrardy

Make it easy on your family by preparing now for the inevitable.

Life Insurance

Not everyone needs to purchase life insurance. However, if you have children or other dependents it may be something to consider.

Life insurance can help provide immediate cash at the time of death and financially help your loved ones after you’ve gone. To learn more about life insurance, talk to your insurance agent or lawyer.


You may wish to consider choosing a beneficiary for your assets (bank accounts, IRAs, stocks and bonds, etc.). Take the time to consider who to put down as your beneficiary (you may be able to list more than one).

Contact your bank, broker or lawyer about naming a beneficiary for your assets.

Wills and Other Legal Documents

According to recent estimates, as many as 70% of Americans do not have a will.

By law, you are not required to have a will. However, if you do not have a will, the State will decide how much and who your money is going to (most of it can end up in the hands of the State). If you have children, the courts will decide where and whom they will live with.

You do not have to be of a certain age to have a will.

Consider what you would like to include in your will such as a list of beneficiaries, the executor of the will (the person you have named in your will and legal documents to take care of things after you pass), any burial or other final wishes and so on.

Usually, you’ll meet with a lawyer to write and draft your will but there are also business and online services that allow you to write a will on your own. Ask friends, family and coworkers for recommendations of businesses or lawyers, or do some research on your own.

Make sure to update your will if:

  • you have a(nother) child
  • you get married
  • you get divorced
  • you buy a new home, car, or any other large purchases
  • you own your own business
  • a beneficiary passes away
  • it’s been at least 5-10 years since you last updated the will.

WHN TIP – Store Your Will: Keep your will in a safe, secure but accessible location. In “Where to Store a Last Will,” Stephanie Morrow recommends best places to keep your will. (Hint: A safety deposit box may not be the best choice since it may be sealed after death.) Be sure to tell your named executor (the person you have named in your will and legal documents to take care of things after you pass) where the will is located.

Health Care Directive

WHN TIP: Know What They Mean: Findlaw’s article “The Definition of Power of Attorney, Living Will and Advance Directives” provides helpful definitions.

Although it may have different names (Living Will, Advance Directive, Directive, Medical Power of Attorney, etc.) a Health Care Directive is a written record of your preferences regarding certain kinds of treatments and any procedures you would receive in order to prolong your life.

You do not have to have a health care directive in most cases. If you do not have a directive, your health care decisions could be decided by doctors, family members and/or judges should you be unable to decide for yourself. You must be 18 years of age or older in order to make a valid health care directive.

WHN TIP – Copies: Provide your primary care doctor with a copy of your health care directive. Also, keep a copy in your medical records file for future use. Consider keeping a copy in your car or wallet in case of a medical emergency. There are online services that can also store files such as these for a small fee.

Organ Donation

You can include your wishes on organ or body donation in your health care directive or in your will. You can also choose to become an organ donor by applying through the state or federal governments (see below for links to websites) and in some states, you can make this choice when you apply for or renew your driver’s license.

For total body donation, it’s best to contact a preselected medical school and make pre-arrangements with them. Remember, it’s always best to have your wishes in writing.

For more information, read our article 2 Types of Organ/Body Donation.

Power of Attorney

A Power of Attorney allows you to name a person to handle your personal and business matters, should you become unable to make these decisions yourself.

You do not have to name a Power of Attorney. However, should you become incapacitated, a doctor, family member, friend, lawyer or judge could possibly make your business or personal decisions for you.

WHN TIP – Location: Be sure to tell your executor (the person you have named in your will and legal documents to take care of things after you pass) where all your documents and policies are located. Your policies won’t be of much help if no one is able to find them.


You have the right to make requests about how you would like to be remembered.

It’s often best to write down your requested arrangements in a separate document from your will. Store your written wishes in a safe location and make sure to let loved ones know where it is stored.

Here is information on burial/cremation, services, obituaries and prepayment options.

Burial and Cremation

You can specify if you would like to be buried or cremated. You may also choose to consider:

  1. Burial
    • where you would like to be buried (town, cemetery, plot/location)
    • what type of casket you would like
    • what tombstone, marker or headstone you would like
    • flowers you would like planted on or near your grave
  2. Cremation
    • if you would like to have your ashes kept in a container or discarded
    • what type of container you would like your ashes stored in
    • if you would like your ashes to be kept by a family member
    • if you would like your ashes to be scattered or buried
    • where, when and by whom you would like your ashes to be scattered or buried

Types of Memorial Services

There are at least three different kinds of services; they vary by state, religious requirements, the deceased’s wishes or family wishes. Discuss your options with the person in charge of your service, your lawyer, your family or others or write them down.

  1. Funeral Service
    A funeral service is held with the body present soon after death, and usually takes place in a religious setting or mortuary, or possibly in your home or the family home.
  2. Memorial Service
    A memorial service is held without the body and can be scheduled several weeks after death, to allow friends and family members time to gather.
  3. Committal Service
    This is the ceremony at the graveside or in a crematory chapel before cremation. If you choose to have a ceremony at the graveside, consult with the cemetery regarding arrangements and restrictions.

Service Wishes

You can also write down your wishes for the service. You may want to consider:

  • locations for gatherings and services
  • which funeral home and/or church you would like to help with the service
  • if the service should be private (invited guests only) or public (open to anyone)
  • who should be invited
  • any specific clothing or jewelry you would like to wear
  • whether your body will be present in a casket and, if so, whether the casket should be open or closed
  • who you would like to serve as pallbearers if needed
  • who should lead the service (priest, friend, family member, funeral director, etc.)
  • who you would like to participate in the service or say the eulogy
  • which pictures and other items you would like displayed
  • special music, readings, food, etc.
  • whether you would like friends and family to send flowers or donations to a named charity


You can also write down information for your own obituary if you would like. You may also choose a photograph and list the newspapers in which you’d like the notice to be placed. Here are common contents to consider for the obituary:

  • Vital statistics about the deceased (date of birth and death)
  • Location of services
  • Address of where to send floral tribute, wishes for donations to charity or nonprofit, if any
  • Photo (optional, often additional costs)
  • Place of residence
  • Education, work and volunteer history, and military experience
  • Memberships in local organizations, religious or other affiliations
  • Honors and awards
  • Names of all spouses, including marriages that ended in divorce or death. If a spouse is deceased, the year of death.
  • Names, relationships and current towns of residence for surviving spouse, children, parents and siblings
  • Number of surviving grandchildren and great-grandchildren


  • You may also write your own epitaph. An epitaph is an inscription on a tombstone or monument. Usually a few lines long, an epitaph is written in honor of the person who is buried there. You can write your own epitaph yourself, name a loved one to write one for you or choose not to have an epitaph at all.


You can choose to pay for funeral items and services before your death. This is a growing trend and many funeral homes now have a prearrangement director, who is familiar with preplanning, prefinancing and state laws.

However, if you’re thinking about prepaying for funeral goods and services, the Federal Trade Commission’s section on Shopping for Funeral Services notes that it is important to consider these issues before putting down any money:

  • What are you are paying for? Are you buying only merchandise, like a casket and vault, or are you purchasing funeral services as well?
  • How will you pay for these arrangements? Options can include setting up a regulated trust account with the funeral home, purchasing a life insurance policy equal to the amount of the funeral, or establishing a savings account specifically for funeral expenses.
  • What happens to the money you’ve prepaid? States have different requirements for handling funds paid for prearranged funeral services.
  • What happens to the interest income on money that is prepaid and put into a trust account?
  • Are you protected if the firm you dealt with goes out of business, sells the company to another owner, or relocates?
  • Can you cancel the contract and get a full refund if you change your mind?
  • What happens if you move to a different area or die while away from home? Some prepaid funeral plans can be transferred, but often at an added cost.

Read more from the Federal Trade Commission at Shopping for Funeral Services and the Funeral Consumers Information Society (FCIS).

WHN TIP – Know the Costs: Our 11 Typical Funeral Expenses article gives a rundown on the average costs of commonly selected services.

For More Information

U.S. Advance Care Plan Registry (USACPR)
You can store a copy of a health care directive online – visit the website to learn more. Founded by Dr. Joseph Barmakian in 1996, the U.S. Advance Care Plan Registry is a privately held organization that electronically stores advance directives, organ donor information and emergency contact information, and makes them available to health care providers across the country 24 hours a day through an automated system.

Who Gets Grandma’s Yellow Pie Plate?
Everyone has personal belongings such as wedding photographs, a baseball glove or a yellow pie plate that contain meaning for them and for other family members. This website provides people with practical information about the inheritance of personal property. The University of Minnesota Extension Service provides unbiased, research-based education as an outreach arm of the University of Minnesota.

Remember …

The information provided here is not meant to be a substitute for professional legal advice. These tips are from lawyers, insurance agents and people who have shared real-life advice; always check with a lawyer, or appropriate professional you trust before making any legal or decisions.

Thank You …

A special thank you to the industry professionals, lawyers, insurance agents and families who gave us their time, insight and real-life advice.

Photo Credit: Melinda Gimpel

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