Death is not a pleasant eventuality to prepare for, and many of us try not to think about it. However, it may not be a tornado or EMP that creates an end-of-the-world situation for you. It may be a car accident or a heart attack, and if you don’t prepare for death, you leave other people to decide what happens to your body, children, pets, and possessions.
Do you want that?
No, of course not.
And no, it’s not fun or pleasant to talk about. We, humans, tend to go about our days like we think we’ll live forever. Yet discussing the inevitable before it happens can make things much easier for the person left behind. Consider it a last act of love you the person receives after you’re gone.
Here are some tips about what topics to discuss as a couple and some questions to ask.
How to Prepare for Death
When my husband deployed, talking about death was part of the checklist. It’s also called estate planning, but in all essence, it’s talking about what happens if he were not to come home. Death of a spouse is a very emotional time. Planning funeral and memorial details can be hard amidst the grief. If you discuss details beforehand and maybe even have them written down somewhere, you will know what to do and not need to think about those details. You will know what to do for your spouse, and they will know their wishes will be honored.
Have you obtained life insurance?
Life insurance is vital for your family’s ability to care for you and themselves when you have passed on. There are many ways that it can be used.
The first and most likely way is to cover funeral expenses. According to the National Funeral Directors Association, the 2021 median cost of a funeral with viewing and burial was $7,848. It’s bizarre how much your final real estate is going to cost.
Even if you decide to be cremated, it costs hundreds of dollars. It doesn’t matter if you want to be placed in a coffin or (my new favorite) have your remains turned into a tree. Life insurance will help pay for your body’s disposal, and, very importantly, the younger you are when you buy life insurance, the cheaper it will be.
Do your research before buying any life insurance policy. Dave Ramsey prefers term life policies while other experts recommend whole life. Read more about life insurance here.
Do you and your spouse have a will?
Another important aspect of preparing for death is a will. A will marks out your wishes when your life ends, but shockingly, most Americans do not have a will in place. Laws vary by state as to what is required for an official will, but even having a will in writing with your signature is better than nothing. Certain states, though, will not honor wills that are not in line with their laws. Your family may follow your wishes, but if there is any contention, it has to be a legal will to be enforced. Make sure to check what is required in your state and check a new state when you move.
Who do you want your assets to go to? A will can make certain that your remains are cared for in the way you wish, and ensure that your stuff goes where and to whom you want it, whether that’s to family members or donated to charity.
Who do you want to appoint to make sure the actions in the will are followed through (executor)? This could be a friend, a family member, or a lawyer.
If you die without a will, generally, your spouse will inherit your assets, but you will, no doubt, have special people in your life that you want to remember in a special way. Without a will, those wishes may or may not be followed. Not having this important document leaves too much to chance and puts too much power in the hands of the state, including the guardianship of your children if you’re unmarried.
Most folks avoid drafting a will because they don’t want to deal with the reality of their own mortality, but not writing a will doesn’t help you live a single day longer! A will is an easy thing to postpone until “tomorrow,” but even someone of meager means should sit down and take the time to write this out. Perhaps all you can leave a loved one is a heartfelt letter or a small family memento. Those could have immeasurable value to someone after your death.
Do Your Own Will has a free form you can fill out to produce an official will, along with instructions. It’s a very general format, and you’ll want to add details regarding specific gifts and bequeathments, and other final requests. Legal Contracts is another helpful site with Last Will and Testament forms.
Put wills in a safe place in your home and give a copy to whomever you set up as executor. Let several loved ones know where they can find a copy of your will.
Additionally, if one of you has children from a previous marriage, that will affect how you divide your assets and life insurance policies. It also makes custody arrangements more difficult.
What about living wills?
Living wills are different from regular wills. This document clarifies your wishes for end-of-life care or if you are permanently unconscious. It keeps your loved ones from having to make medical choices for you because you have already made them yourself ahead of time. For example, if you are in a coma, a living will could make official your decision to be taken off support long should such an event happen. Your children or spouse aren’t put in the position of making that choice for you.
Do Your Own Will has free living will forms as does Law Depot.
Is a medical power of attorney necessary?
Do you know what you and your spouse wants if you can’t make medical decisions? In contrast to a living will, a medical power of attorney, or health care power of attorney, outlines your treatment wishes in ANY instance where you cannot communicate them.
The first step is to talk about what you would want to happen if you were on life support or in a coma. Do you want to remain on life support indefinitely or not? Do you want to donate organs? The second step is to either put it in writing with a living will or Do Not Resuscitate order or to designate a medical power of attorney. If you post this on the refrigerator, First Responders and family members can quickly find it in an emergency.
The medical power of attorney can be your spouse, if you are sure he or she would follow your wishes. Copies of the paperwork should be filed with your doctor and medical records, and in a safe place in your home where your spouse can access them.
Are trust funds and allowances needed?
Setting money aside for the ones you love can even be done after death. You can also put conditions on it. For example, your children will get the money from your savings account and investments, but not until they turn eighteen, 21, or some other age that you determine. You set the dollar amount they receive per month, quarter, or year. A trust fund allows you to set up a system to help continue care for special needs kids or other family members.
It’s also handy, let’s be honest, to control the flow of money to those whose judgment may sometimes be questionable. They receive financial support in small, regular amounts rather than one lump sum.
In short, it’s a way to continue providing a level of financial help to those you love long after you’re gone. Trust funds aren’t just for millionaires, and it’s something to consider if you have savings and investments.
Who do you want to raise your children?
One of the most important items of preparing for death is mapping out who you want to raise your children should you pass on. The last thing you want for a child who has just lost a parent is to also face uncertainty about what will happen to them.
We want our children to still have a stable environment when growing up. We want to be able to pass our belief systems on to them even when we are gone. We want them to be with people that treat them as equal family members. Most of all, we don’t want multiple family members fighting over their custody. These are all important subjects to discuss as a couple and with your older children.
What will happen to your pets?
The same is true of a beloved pet. Many pets left behind by death do not have a guardianship prepared for them. These pets often end up in a shelter. Discuss with family and friends who would be willing to take care of your pet. You may believe someone would take your furry friend only to discover an allergy prevents them from doing so. Discuss the possibility of setting up a vet trust or pet care allowance with them.
Do you know what kind of funeral/memorial you and your spouse wants?
There are a lot of details in the funeral and memorial.
- Do you want a simple or elaborate funeral?
- Will it be open to just family or to everyone?
- Will there be a viewing or wake?
- If there is a memorial, will it be at a church, and which one?
- What do you want to happen at the graveside?
- Are there certain songs, poems, or verses you want to be included?
- Will there be photos or a video at the memorial?
- Who will write the obituary, and what details will it have in it?
- What photo do you want to go with the obit?
- Do you want people to donate to a charity in your name?
And those are just a few!
Remember, if you feel overwhelmed thinking about all these details right now, imagine how your loved one will feel having to make these decisions when they’re also grieving.
Where do you and your spouse want to be buried?
All of these questions should be discussed with your spouse.
- Do you want to be buried, put in a mausoleum, or cremated?
- If cremated, what do you want to be done with your ashes?
- Do you want to be buried together?
- Are there any religious factors to consider with a cemetery?
- Is there a family plot, and do you want to be buried there?
- If you grew up somewhere else, do you want to be buried there or where you live now?
- Does the type of coffin matter?
- Do you want to be buried with anything or nothing at all?
- Is there a certain outfit you want to be buried in?
Funeral costs can even be paid for in advance if you and your spouse know what you want to do and where you want to be buried. This can relieve some of the burden of decisions for those left behind.
Do you have a way to pass on memories of you and your spouse?
Photo albums, scrapbooks, journals, and letters are ways you can pass along family history and memories. Letters written to your spouse and children that are to be opened upon your death can bring comfort to those left behind. Place these in a safe place in your home. Take the time to digitally archive photos and scrapbooks so they can be passed on to more than one person and so you have a backup.
Have all important documents in order.
Having a binder with all important documents can also help you if a spouse dies. You may need his or her birth certificate, any military records, W-2s, deeds, titles, insurance policies, banking information, loan information, stock information, proof of citizenship, etc. Having wills, power of attorneys, and funeral wishes in this binder would also be helpful. Keeping family contact information up-to-date and in this binder can also help when you need to inform family members of a death.
Another topic to discuss is passwords, e-mail, and social media accounts. Does your spouse have a way to access all important online accounts, both financial and personal? Do you want your e-mail and social media accounts shut down, and can your spouse do that?
Death preparedness is a part of the bigger picture of prepping — no one lives forever. Planning ahead for a time when we won’t be around is a little like taking a dose of particularly noxious medicine. We know it has to be done, we know we’ll feel better once it’s been swallowed, but it’s hard taking that first gulp. If you do nothing else today, go to one of the websites listed above and create a basic Last Will and Testament. Add your own personal requests, sign it, have someone witness your signature, date, and seal in an envelope.
There. You’re done. You can always go back and amend the document but should something happen in the meantime, this first important base is covered.
(Be sure to store a copy of your will in a safe, safe deposit box, with an attorney, or a trusted loved one.)
The Final Word
Preparing for death is not just a depressing preparation for your demise. It also ensures that your golden years stay yours instead of being hijacked by the medical system or well-meaning relatives. Death comes to us all, but are you prepared for what you must do when a loved one dies, especially your spouse? Have you talked about death?
Take some time soon to talk to your spouse about death and all that surrounds each. You will both rest easier knowing each other’s wishes, and you will be prepared in case tragedy visits your family.
In what ways have you prepared for death?
Last updated December 3, 2022 by The Survival Mom editors, with contributions from Sarah Anne Carter.