Emotions run high when a loved one dies and, in the midst of their grief, family members may be less likely to compromise about things, like the decedent’s funeral arrangements. Thus, it may be necessary for someone to exert control over such matters. Typically, the executor named in the decedent’s will has authority to make funeral decisions, unless the decedent made other provisions.
Often, all family members participate in funeral planning when a loved one dies, but it can be difficult for everyone to agree on certain arrangements. If the decedent did not make plans for his funeral before he died, the ultimate responsibility to make these decisions falls on his executor or personal representative. This is the person named in the decedent’s will to administer his estate, which includes paying his debts and distributing his assets to beneficiaries named in his will. If the executor named in the will declines to serve as representative, the probate court will appoint an alternate instead.
An executor does not necessarily take on financial responsibility for the decedent’s funeral arrangements. When he acts in his capacity as executor, he is making financial decisions for the decedent’s estate, and the decedent’s funeral arrangements become a debt of the estate. Thus, the executor’s decision may be guided in part by cost and what he feels the estate can afford. For example, if the executor estimates the decedent’s estate only has a few thousand dollars in assets, he may have to make less expensive arrangements than he would otherwise prefer. Executors are not required to pay the decedent’s funeral expenses out of their personal funds.
Many states allow their residents to designate an agent whose only responsibility is to control the disposition of their remains. This can be the same person as the executor. This type of designation is particularly useful if someone wants to name one person as executor, to manage the financial aspects of the death, but wants another person to handle the funeral arrangements. For example, a family friend could be named as executor and a close sibling could be designated as the agent to handle the funeral arrangements. Some states, like Idaho, permit their residents to include such agent designations in their health care powers of attorney.
Many states also allow their residents to detail burial wishes in their designated agent documents or personal wills. These details are often binding and cannot be changed by relatives, executor or designated agent. For example, Connecticut law allows residents to create their own legally binding declaration, with or without appointing an agent to carry out those directions. Funeral directions can be very detailed, for example, by including a list of songs to be played at the funeral service, or more general, such as whether the decedent wishes to be cremated.