Survival Plan for a Death in the Family

Update 2 July 2010:

A few weeks ago my uncle went to see his doctor with symptoms of congestive heart failure — coughing, shortness of breath when lying down, fatigue. The doctor admitted him to the hospital, where they confirmed congestive heart failure, but held him for “additional tests.” Ten days later he was diagnosed with lung cancer, the result of smoking all his life. Two weeks later he was dead. (Tip: I would never support a State ban on smoking, but it’s really bad for you — duh — and I personally advise against it).

He is survived by his wife and other blood relations who loved him dearly, myself included. He was only 59 years old, and my consolation is that I’ll see him again on resurrection day. We’ll both be fit and excited about the future.

In the last few weeks we scrambled to get his affairs in order, and I learned a lot about managing your assets so as to minimize the chaos left behind after you die. Heads up: I’m not an estate lawyer and I’m not giving legal advice — just advice in general about life and death. For the details, consult your lawyer.

The state of Tennessee is a model of liberty when it comes to burial and funeral laws. For example:

  • You don’t have to buy a casket from a funeral home. In fact, you don’t have to use a casket at all.
  • You don’t have to claim the body from the funeral; you can pick up the body yourself at the hospital.
  • You don’t have to hire a funeral director; you can conduct the funeral service yourself, or have a friend, relative, or total stranger do it, as long as they do it for free. But if they charge a fee for the service, they must be licensed.
  • You can bury the deceased on your own property, or his property, or your dad’s property — whatever. By doing so you create a family cemetery. If you want certain tax advantages (and access to the cemetery after you sell the property) you’ll have to register a deed indicating the presence of the family cemetery on the property.

This web page from the Hamilton County Examiner’s Office explains your rights regarding the burial of your loved one. If your state law is more restrictive, write your state representative and request a change in the law.

How to prepare for death

Yeah, I know that sounds gruesome but hey, death is so common that it seems borderline irresponsible not to keep it in mind as you plan your life.

  1. Make a will or a trust. If you don’t have a will or a trust, your assets will be distributed according to your state’s laws of intestate succession. Your black sheep brother might get everything when you’d rather donate it to a charity. Also, if you are not survived by your spouse, the court might appoint a guardian you might not have preferred for your children. A will is cheaper to set up initially, but the right kind of trust avoids probate expenses. A will is a matter of public record, but a trust is private. Even if you have a trust, you’ll need a will with a “pourover” provision, which “pours” any assets you still own into the trust.
  2. Make your funeral arrangements ahead of time. I don’t want my wife to worry about details like where to bury me and what kind of casket to buy while she’s grieving her loss, and I don’t want her to worry about the bills involved in turning those problems over to a funeral home. In some states you can save your heirs thousands of dollars by arranging your own funeral ahead of time. In Tennessee, for example, you can bury your loved one on your own property in a home-made coffin (or a sheet, for that matter). Following his wishes, we buried my uncle for the cost of hiring a backhoe to dig the hole, and friends built the casket overnight.
  3. Consider life insurance. Life insurance can be used to cover any remaining debts or obligations, like hospital bills. There are many different types of policies available. Check out Dave Ramsey’s web site for more info about life insurance.
  4. Ultimate Long-Term Survival Plan. No discussion about death is complete without mentioning the opportunity you have to cheat death forever. Check out the Free Ticket to Heaven offer, courtesy of Jesus Christ. If you haven’t heard about it, send me an email and I’ll hook you up.

One more tip. Live as if you may die any moment. By this I don’t mean live with abandon and tear off as much as you can before you go; I mean live with an awareness of the eternal impact of your day-to-day decisions. Your time is precious; your children or grandchildren may not see you again, so make your time worthwhile. Your wife may never see you after you leave for work today; make sure she knows you love her, and make sure (to the extent you can) that she’s provided for in case you die.

This is an update. The original story appears below:

Recently I’ve been dealing with a serious illness in the family that has every indication it will culminate in death soon. This experience has me thinking about what families can do to prepare for this situation which everyone will face eventually. But that article will have to be posted another time, because I have too many preparations to make right now.

Meanwhile, a silver lining in all this: I discovered that in Tennessee you don’t have to use a funeral home or pay monopoly prices for a casket. Family members of the deceased can claim the body at the hospital and transport it in their own vehicle to their home. They can build their own casket for their loved one, or even wrap the body in sheets or quilts, and lay him in the ground on their own property (subject to zoning restrictions). That’s a nice bit of news I wanted to share. (What you can’t do is charge anyone to conduct a funeral service, unless you’re licensed to do so). Take advantage of this freedom while we still have it: start your own family cemetery.

I’ll be back soon!


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