Death and sepulcher – facing the inevitable

Benjamin Franklin famously wrote, “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” In all the years that I’ve worked with clients to create a financial path for their long-term wishes in life and after they are gone, I’ve covered a huge spectrum of topics. Until now, I’ve never asked clients about their “right of sepulcher” (the right of sepulcher means the right to choose and control the burial, cremation, or other final disposition of a deceased person). I recognize that, for some, this topic may seem a tad morbid. The cautionary tales of contentious and messy celebrity funerals that follow (suggested by Amy F. Altman, an associate at Meltzer, Lippe, Goldstein and Breitstone) may provide you with some perspective and may help you consider how you and your loved ones feel about your right of sepulcher.

  • Litigation surrounding the 2007 death of actor, model and TV personality Anna Nicole Smith made headline news for weeks as her mother and the guardian of her infant daughter battled for the right of sepulcher. Ultimately, the daughter’s guardian prevailed and Anna was buried in the Bahamas next to her late (and recently deceased) son.
  • Boston Red Sox Hall of Famer Ted Williams’ death in 2002 resulted in a spectacular rift between his children over the disposition of his remains. His eldest daughter argued that Williams’ will clearly stipulated cremation, BUT his son had been given power of attorney and his father’s health proxy and he wanted his father cryogenically preserved. Eventually, the son won out, largely because the daughter could not afford the cost of litigation.
  • Legendary actor Mickey Rooney died in 2014. His estranged wife wanted him buried in a shared plot purchased before they had separated. Rooney’s conservator (court appointed guardian) had other ideas and a costly tug-of-war ensued. In the end, his wife capitulated, recognizing that burial in a Hollywood cemetery befitting Rooney’s status was appropriate.

These cases, regardless of age, underscore the importance and value of discussing with loved ones your preferences for disposition. The laws regarding rights of sepulcher vary widely by state. If permitted under state law, completing a “disposition of remains form” together with advanced directives seems an appropriate start. This will create clarity with respect to the sensitive issues surrounding burial.

As with all legal documents you need to first understand what it is that you really want, which can take a long time to fully grasp and may require delicate discussions with loved ones and personal introspection. Leaving aside what I consider the more important question regarding life support for now, you can first deal with the question, do you want to be cremated, or perhaps cryogenically preserved? Do you want to be an organ donor? Would you like your funeral to take place at home or at a funeral parlor? Do you want a formal service or commemorative event? Though you’ll be gone, these are all options that may well prove to be important (and costly if mishandled) to those you leave behind.

At times, I think that there is so much to do while we are alive that taking time to consider what will happen after we’re gone seems inconsequential and entirely unimportant, but this may not be the case for loved ones. Let me offer an example.

Recently, a client shared that over the course of a dinner conversation with his parents they casually revealed their preference to be cremated. This came as an enormous shock. “Never in a million years,” he said, “would I have predicted that this was my parents actual wish.” This is a man who has made every effort to ensure he is in touch with the real wishes of his aging parents. “I would have got it wrong,” he said, adding “a split second’s worth of conversation set me straight.” He felt like a huge weight was lifted from his shoulders.

The person to whom you give the right of sepulcher may gain much by having even a short conversation about your wishes, regardless of your age.

Edi Alvarez, CFP®

Handling Finances When You’ve Lost a Loved One

As you would expect, we each respond in our own way to the death of someone close to us. Some focus on getting things done while others find themselves unable to function. The range of reactions spans the full spectrum of emotions. During this time you will also need to know how to begin the process of taking care of the deceased’s finances. The following are a few important points to keep in mind.

First and foremost, before reporting the death to financial institutions you must ensure that you (or the executor) have access to legal/financial documents and to sufficient assets to pay for all expenses associated with this process. Be prepared that if the documents are stored in a safety deposit box it will be sealed when notice of the death is received and not available to anyone that doesn’t have their name on the box. Since some accounts will also be sealed it is also a good idea to determine the source of assets that will be used to cover ongoing expenses and to support dependents while the deceased’s estate is processed. If funds are in joint accounts be sure they will not be frozen once you submit the death certificate.

A surprising tidbit is that you’ll need 20-25 certified death certificates (one original per financial institution) from the County Registrar or Funeral Director or Health Department. Your instinct might have been to ask for one.

As early as possible, engage with your support team (CPA, estate attorney, financial advisor, executors and trustees), then keep the lines of communication open throughout the process of settling the estate. There may be time constraints associated with certain filings and activities related to settling the estate making it doubly important to work together.

A sampling of other financial considerations:

  • Identify all automatic deductions and regular subscriptions to determine which need to be changed or terminated
  • Debt should be handled with care since some will end with the deceased
  • In partnership with the executor, obtain a tax ID for the estate
  • File the necessary tax forms (e.g., Forms 1040 and 1041)
  • Take particular care when handling tax-advantaged accounts and when making decisions on insurance proceeds – check with your team
  • Take a close look at the fine print. Spouses, partners and children may be entitled to survivor benefits

This is only a partial catalog of considerations.

Edi Alvarez, CFP®