One of the key parts of making your own end-of-life plan is planning for your funeral arrangements. Not everyone has the right to make funeral arrangements on behalf of a relative or loved one. This authority is given based on your relationship with your loved ones, but it isn’t always easy to know where you stand.
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This isn’t necessarily the person responsible for funeral costs. This burden typically falls on the estate, though your family might contribute to the cost of a funeral on their own. Ultimately, this authority depends on your state laws.
In this guide, we’ll share the different tiers of who has the right to make funeral arrangements. Keep this in mind when planning your final will.
What Decisions Need to Be Made?
First, let’s talk about what decisions need to be made after the death of a loved one. The authority for these decisions depends on specific state laws. The Funeral Consumer Alliance dives deeper into each state’s laws.
This person has a lot on his or her plate. Unless you’ve specifically expressed your funeral wishes, this individual makes decisions on the following:
- How to handle your body after death (burial or cremation)
- Whether to hold a funeral, memorial, or celebration of life
- Whether your funeral follows religious or cultural customs
- Where all services take place
- Whether to use a service like GatheringUs to have a virtual funeral if coming together in person isn't possible
These decisions are hard enough under the best of circumstances. When dealing with the death of a loved one, they’re even more stressful.
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Tiers of Authority
Navigating this challenging time requires a strict hierarchy of authority. Next, we’ll break down the specific tiers of authority for these decisions.
1. Your funeral instructions
In most cases, you’re the first choice when it comes to making funeral arrangements. Under most state laws, any funeral instructions you write before you die take priority. These funeral instructions are only known if you have a funeral plan in your end-of-life plan.
Your funeral instructions should be entrusted to an estate lawyer or trusted relative. If not, how will your family know your wishes? If you don’t set your own funeral instructions or wishes, the state moves to the next tier of authority.
2. Advance directive
In many states, you name an agent in your advance directive. An advance directive is a document outlying your medical wishes in the case that you aren’t able to speak for yourself. In this advanced directive, you list someone as your health care agent.
Your health care agent is typically the next of kin or another trusted person. Most states consider this person to be authorized to make funeral arrangements on your behalf. In order for this to apply, you’ll need to create an advance directive.
3. Your spouse
Legal authority falls to your spouse or domestic partner if they’re living and able to perform funeral arrangements. Conflicts between family members aren’t uncommon, especially when emotions are already high. Having a spouse take over this process puts these arguments to rest while allowing someone to take charge.
Your spouse is also able to make decisions about the disposal of your body and your burial or cremation. They are to refer to your wishes as long as they are reasonable.
4. Adult children
Next, after your spouse, this authority falls to any adult children. Minors are not authorized to make funeral decisions, so this control would go to someone else. Adult children, however, can make these decisions about the funeral.
What happens if you have several adult children? In this case, most states require them to work together in some way. This is to reduce problems in families where there might be multiple adult children. The majority of the adult children will rule. If an agreement on the funeral and estate is not reached, the matter might go to probate court.
5. Your parents
After adult children comes your parents. While most parents don’t want to think about planning their adult children’s funeral, this sometimes is necessary. Your parents step in as the authority if you do not have a living spouse or children.
Again, it’s helpful to have a funeral plan in place or to pre-pay for this service. Otherwise, these burdens fall on your family’s shoulders in their time of need.
6. Your siblings
Next, your siblings have the responsibility of planning your funeral arrangements if your parents are no longer living or are not able. If your parents are aging, they might not be physically able to prepare for a funeral.
Similar to adult children, the majority of your siblings work together to come to an agreement. Family disagreements aren’t uncommon during this process. Having your own wishes in place is the best way to avoid tension during funeral arrangements.
7. Next of kin
Last but not least, your funeral arrangements go to your next of kin. If you don’t have any of the above, your funeral planning goes to another family member. This could be a grandparent, aunt or uncle, niece or nephew, and so on. Placing this burden on an extended family member is not usually ideal, but it might be the only option.
Some states allow close friends to step in as the next of kin. This is usually in the case that the friend is familiar with the wishes of the deceased. If nobody in the tiers above is willing or able, a friend might fill in.
8. If there's no next of kin
Sometimes people die without a next of kin or any existing plans. In this case, they’re considered to have no next of kin. What happens to the funeral arrangements? Who takes control?
In this case, the county offers services. First, the county attempts to locate any family or a formal will and testament. If none are found, the country's Social Services Department assists. The county usually has a budget to fund inexpensive burials and handle the necessary arrangements.
Can the Next of Kin Be Contested?
One of the most common questions about who has the right to make funeral arrangements is whether the next of kin is set in stone. While most states stick to a tier system similar to the one outlined above, there is some room for discussion.
For example, if the next of kin is temporarily incapacitated like in the case of a car wreck injury, the funeral is often delayed. Delaying a funeral after death is not uncommon for these unique situations. This gives the next of kin time to heal, so he or she has the right frame of mind to focus on funeral arrangements.
The next of kin is also sometimes disputed over cultural, religious, or geographic differences. When this happens, the case might go to probate court. While disagreements are common when feelings are high, it’s best to put differences aside and work together. This is why a written, formal funeral plan is an essential part of your end-of-life planning.
Take Charge of Funeral Arrangements
This hierarchy above exists to make this stressful time a little bit easier for families. Nobody wants to think about taking care of their loved one’s funeral arrangements. The best way to help your family during this time is to prepare your funeral wishes in advance. This gives your family the guidelines they need to avoid conflict during this time of crisis.
Taking a few minutes to review your state laws helps you know what to expect when the time comes. Whether you’re preparing for your own funeral or helping with a loved one’s funeral, every step is important. Don’t leave your family in the dark when it comes to your end-of-life planning. A bit of preparation goes a long way in your family’s time of need.
Post-planning tip: If you are the executor for a deceased loved one, you have more than just the funeral to think about. Handling their unfinished business can be overwhelming without a way to organize your process. We have a post-loss checklist that will help you ensure that your loved one's family, estate, and other affairs are taken care of.
- “Frequently Asked Questions.” Oklahoma Funeral Board. OK.gov.
- Lisinski, Chris. “What happens when life ends for someone with no family or means?” Riverhead News-Review. 4 February 2016. Riverheadnewsreview.timesreview.com.
- “Who has the legal right to make decisions about your funeral?” Funeral Consumer Alliance. Funerals.org.