If an individual passes away without any advance funeral planning in place, it can be difficult to know who is responsible for funeral costs. Few people can afford to foot the bill for a funeral all by themselves, and in a situation that’s already filled with tension, it can put a strain on the family to determine who should play the primary financial role.
To further complicate matters, every state has its own regulations regarding fiscal responsibility. While most states adhere to similar laws, you may have to talk with a local attorney to get specific information for your situation.
The Estate of the Deceased
If the deceased leaves behind any kind of estate (the sum total of his/her home, vehicles, and other assets), that is the primary source of revenue for a funeral. The purpose of burial is not to force family members to pay out of their own pockets, but to tap into the deceased’s own assets to cover the costs. Depending on the sum total value of the estate, these funds can cover the entire funeral (with remaining funds to be disbursed according to the will), or be used to pay for part.
One of the biggest issues in this scenario is that the estate is rarely solvent at the time of death—meaning that the money gained from the sale of a house and/or other assets isn’t going to be available for several months. In most cases, family members will be asked to cover the funeral costs out of pocket, and will be later reimbursed by the estate.
Adult Children and Family Members
In most cases, the individual who will make most of the financial arrangements for the funeral is the Executor to the Estate (usually the spouse, next of kin, or an adult child). Unless there is a will stipulating otherwise, this individual has the legal right to make all decisions related to the funeral—and is also responsible for ensuring payment is made in full.
However, in the real world, funeral planning takes more than one person. Many family members will have something to add to the funeral plans (and they may even push for more expensive or elaborate burial options than the deceased would have wished), and you may feel pressured to incorporate their additions to smooth things over.
Unless each family member is prepared to contribute to the funeral costs (or adult children are prepared to split the total bill), it’s best to allow one final decision maker to do most of the planning.
Funeral Home Arrangements
One thing to be careful of is any contracts or promissory notes you sign with the funeral home of your choosing. In many cases, there will be a fine print clause that holds you legally responsible for the funeral costs, regardless of the estate value, and they will be able to go after you in order to get all the bills paid. Unless you are prepared to cover the costs out of pocket, be wary of signing this kind of paperwork.
In some situations, the deceased may leave behind no dependents, no funeral plans, and no estate. In these instances, the county government will take care of the burial, but it is done with minimal frills and all costs can be later reclaimed from assets that are discovered in the future.