Senior Spirit Newsletter
March, 2013   
Free Resources Become a CSA Find a CSA CSA Store

Be Prepared for the Funeral and After

Follow us:  LinkedIn Facebook Twitter Follow the CSA Blog YouTube
When author Amy Levine’s sister, Laura, died suddenly, Levine had to figure out what needed to be done immediately. Her sister died in a city across the country, and the first stumbling block was bringing her sister’s body home. Before she could do that, she was told she would have to find a funeral home, so in the middle of the night in a strange city, she found herself desperately Googling funeral homes.

That’s just one piece of information she found out the hard way, and in a time when she was in shock and grief, barely able to function. Like 65 percent of Americans, her sister had never drafted a will, so the family didn’t know Laura’s wishes about distributing her assets. In fact, Levine’s family didn’t even know what her sister’s assets were.

After getting a crash course in what to do after losing a loved one, Levine, a producer and creative director for TV and media, was determined that others shouldn’t have to go through what she and her family did. The result is the e-book The Funeral Is Just the Beginning: Everything You Need to Do When a Loved One Dies.

Funeral Planning Checklist

  • Determine if your loved one’s funeral wishes are known
  • Select a funeral provider
  • Select a type of service
  • Select a type of viewing if there is to be one
  • Decide on an open or closed casket
  • Purchase a casket
  • Purchase a cemetery plot
  • Choose an officiant
  • Choose a minimum of six pallbearers
  • Select who will speak or read during the ceremony
  • Select readings and music for the ceremony
  • Prepare and print funeral programs
  • Write and submit the obituary

(From The Funeral Is Just the Beginning: Everything You Need to Do When a Loved One Dies.)
Negotiating with Funeral Providers

Most seniors are better prepared than the general population for the inevitable, but even the most prepared will be surprised by some of what Levine discovered, such as your rights at a funeral home. In fact, she devotes three chapters to dealing with funeral service providers. One reason is that funerals are “an important ritual, society’s way of dealing with and saying goodbye to a loved one,” Levine says. A funeral is the third largest expense most families will have in a lifetime, after a home and a car, according the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The topic is so fraught with misinformation that the FTC issued a Funeral Rule, stating the regulations that funeral and service providers must adhere to, including clarity about costs.

Levine compares choosing a funeral home to buying a car; in both cases you should do your research and be prepared to deal with high-pressure sales tactics. For example, funeral service providers often use the term “traditional,” such as “it’s traditional to have six wreaths around the casket,” when in actuality the wreaths are optional and not a required part of the service.

Funeral homes are a $15 billion industry, with funeral costs averaging $7,500. Though many funeral providers are honest, some manipulate grieving friends and family into buying a bigger casket than originally planned, with suggestions that, “I’m sure you want the best for your loved one.” Says Levine: “People think, ‘I want to give my loved one a casket worthy of their value to me,’ but there’s no way to do that.”

Another tactic that some funeral homes use to get the family to upgrade the funeral package is to call and ask the family to come and identify the body, even though most funeral homes have procedures in place to ensure it’s the right body. But the face-to-face contact provides funeral personnel with another selling opportunity.

Distributing the Deceased’s Assets

As Levine notes, the funeral is just the beginning. The process of settling affairs can take between six months and a year. Survivors must make mandatory death notifications, list the deceased’s assets, file taxes and clean out the person’s residence, just to name a few necessary tasks.

One of the more complicated and lengthy duties is distributing the deceased’s assets, with different avenues if there is a will and if there isn’t one. However, all estates must go through probate court, unless the estate is worth less than $50,000 (figure may vary by state), in which case you can file a Small Estate Affidavit to avoid probate court. Although you can deal with the probate court yourself, without hiring an attorney, Levine compares it to being able to learn how to replace the transmission in your car: It could be done, but you would save a lot of time and energy by having a professional do it for you.

The personal representative for the estate, also known as executor, is either named in the will or, if there is no will, by the court. His or her responsibilities are many, including collecting inventory and appraising the deceased’s assets, paying off the deceased’s debts and taxes (from the estate) and distributing the remaining assets to the proper parties.

If a trust has been set up, the process is easier. In this case, the trust names the trustee, who is given the responsibilities of dealing with the deceased’s estate. Because estate laws vary by state, Levine recommends consulting an attorney before you begin the process. She also suggests how to find a lawyer and which documents you should bring to your first meeting, including the deceased’s bank and credit card accounts and balances, a list of personal property, health insurance policy information and real estate holdings.

Dealing with Insensitive Companies

Survivors must record all property and assets as part of the estate, which means you need to get the necessary information from banking, credit card, mortgage, utility and investments companies, to name a few. This process proved to be one of the hardest for Levine. “What happens is you’re brokenhearted, in shock, talking to people who are not kind and telling them the most intimate issues” about your loved one and his/her death.

In closing her sister’s accounts, Levine found that the company representatives were either indifferent or cruel, with one exception (a company that actually sent a condolence card). Her father had a conversation with one cell provider representative who insisted that her father couldn’t close the account because only the deceased could do that. She recounts the conversation:

“She’s dead. I have her death certificate.”

“I understand that sir, but technically we will need her to close the account.”

“She’s dead. I’m her father. I can send you her death certificate.”

“Sir, that’s our policy.”

“But it doesn’t make any sense. She’s dead.”

“I understand that, sir. But she has to close the account herself.”

“Fine. You can send her bill to the cemetery.”

As Levine says, no grieving parent should ever have a conversation like that about his or her child.

In some way or other, that conversation was repeated with other account representatives. “What astonishes me is surely they are dealing with this every day,” she says. Yet, the representatives are “not trained for this. . . I felt like we were the first of its kind. They should have a standard.”

Not only that, but her family was hounded by credit card companies to pay off Laura’s debts. “Credit card companies will do anything to get money owed to them,” she says. “Most people don’t realize they’re not accountable for deceased’s debts.”

She strongly advocates that everyone, young or old, keep records of all their accounts, including passwords and logins. In fact, Levine is putting together a workbook that allows people to record vital information in the event of emergencies. (See also the Information for Life Kit, a tool that allows seniors to put together a comprehensive compilation of their personal, legal, medical and financial information.)

If Levine’s family had all that information, they could have closed the accounts on their own and “could have circumvented clueless personnel” (although legally you have to notify banks about deaths).

Handling the Grief Process

When it comes to offering comfort to the family and friends of loved ones, many people are uncomfortable and don’t know what to say or do. “I’m sorry for your loss” comes across as trite, while some pretend that it didn’t happen and avoid bringing up the death, Levine says. It was especially hard when people asked how her sister died. “For me, the whole thing of having to retell the story was painful. For me, I’m tearing out my guts having to relive this one more time.” Her advice is to just show up—whether with a meal, groceries or to just listen: “Is there anything you want to talk about?”

The book lists Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ five stages of grieving: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. “My intention was to have people be able to know that what they’re going through is normal,” she says. “One day you’re fine, the next ‘I don’t think I can live.’ You start to doubt yourself. It’s helpful to have signposts. I can recognize this in me. It’s something you can tether to” so you don’t feel lost.

Beyond all the information she compiled for what to do after a death, Levine said it’s important to compile pertinent information for your survivors. “I learned it’s not really about you. The reason you write a will and how you want to be disposed of is not for you; it’s for the people and family who have to take care of all this. Think: ‘What’s going to be easiest for people I love dearly?’“ Preparing for your own death “alleviates pain and suffering” for those left behind who have to make hard decisions.

Return to Main Page

Visit the CSA blog:
Join SCSA on Facebook:
Follow SCSA on Twitter:
Visit SCSA on LinkedIn:
Watch Our Videos on YouTube:
We appreciate any comments and feedback regarding our publications in order to improve them and provide CSAs with the information they need to better serve their senior clients. Please follow the attached link to provide any comments or suggestions you may have: Thank you.