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Funeral Planning: Essential Legal Documents Guide

Plan your goodbye with essential end-of-life documents. This guide covers legal preparations from wills to health care directives, ensuring your wishes are honored and easing your journey.

To say goodbye in the way you’d like, you need to give your loved ones some guidelines. While leaving some informal notes is a good start, there are certain legal documents that will make their lives easier and allow your legacy to be celebrated in the way you’d like.

Surveys show most people think end-of-life planning is important, but few actually do it. If you are reading this, we hope you’ll take the next step and get your thoughts on paper or have a conversation with loved ones. It will not only help them honor your memory, it could save you and them money by knowing what matters most to you. Things to consider are the cost of a funeral (or memorial) and what choices you’d like, your estate plan and how’d you like to divide it, and your end-of-life health care wishes.

While a will is certainly among the top legal document you’ll need, there are dozens of other documents that can help spell out what you want and help your family navigate the world after you are gone. While the task can feel overwhelming, you can do it a little at a time and can hire help to guide you (a lawyer, financial planner, estate planner, death doula, etc.). There are also many resources online, including Afterall, to help.

Choosing the Right Life Insurance Policy for Funeral Costs

Some people purchase life insurance to give their loved ones money and financial security after they are gone. The policies can range from a whole life policy that grows in value, a term life insurance policy that is for a set amount of time, or a smaller policy that covers the cost of your planned funeral. You can do some online research and work with an insurance agent or a funeral director (some are also licensed insurance agents) to decide which kind of policy suits your needs. 

Writing a Legacy Letter or Ethical Will

According to AfterLight founder Rachel Donnelly, a Legacy Letter or Ethical Will can include your personal or family history, “beliefs, values, and life lessons for future generations.” Whether it's recounting cherished family stories, expressing your principles, or leaving behind a message of love and hope, this document can be a powerful part of your legacy planning.

Assigning a Health Care Power of Attorney: Ensuring Your Wishes

A health care power of attorney is a legal document that gives another person the right to make medical decisions for someone. The health care power of attorney means both the document itself and the person named in it. Having an HCPA or health care proxy can help everyone know, including your doctors, what your wishes are/were as you face big medical decisions but are unable to communicate. The laws differ state-to-state, so research the laws in your area or with your attorney as you complete this document.

Advance Directives and DNRs: Preparing for Critical Health Decisions

Another tool to help communicate your health care wishes is called an Advance Directive. It is also known as a “living will,” personal directive, medical directive and advance decision. It also varies from state to state. The AARP has a handy guide to Advance Directive forms in each state. Another important medical form is a DNR or “Do Not Resuscitate.” According to the Cleveland Clinic, a DNR tells your doctors that you do not want Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR) if your heart stops or you stop breathing. It becomes part of your medical record.

Managing Your Digital Legacy: Social Media, Photos, and Accounts

Now that so many of us have thousands of photos and documents online and in social media and passwords for everything from our banks to our utility bills, it’s important to leave a document behind with passwords and wishes for the legacy of those accounts. Some may choose to leave social media accounts to continue in a memorial mode while others want them shut down. You can create a Digital Estate Plan and name a Digital Executor to carry out these wishes. Some companies let you get a headstart on managing your “digital afterlife.”

The Importance of a Letter of Instruction for Personal and Financial Details

While a will helps divide your assets when you are gone, a Letter of Instruction can handle the nitty gritty of what you want done with your body or how you’d like to be celebrated with a funeral, memorial or party after your death. According to the estate planning website Cake, a Letter of Instruction can also include details about bank accounts, contact information for your attorney and where other important documents are in your home (think birth certificate, marriage certificate, divorce papers). The Trust & Will website also has a step-by-step guide.

Don’t Play Hide and Seek

A headache for many family members is the inability to find documents left behind by a loved one. Don’t lock them away in a safe deposit box or hide them in a filing cabinet where they’ll have trouble finding them. Send copies to your loved ones and/or show them where they are. Your loved ones will be grateful for the clarity and organization you provide, allowing them to devote their time to honoring your memory rather than sorting through paperwork after your departure.

Are you prepared to ensure your final wishes are honored with the respect they deserve? Learn more about how to plan a funeral in advance or explore our Plan Ahead page to begin shaping a future that truly reflects your desires. Create peace of mind for yourself and your loved ones by confidently taking charge of your funeral planning today.

To learn about another legal issue that arises after a loved one's passing, take a look at our article Probate 101: What You Need to Know.

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