Simple Steps For Starting Now
Death is a part of life. Whether you believe death is an end or a passage, planning for your death can reduce stress and bring calm, clarity, and closure to a time of transition.
A death plan involves the standard documents: a Will, Advance Healthcare Directive, and optionally a Living Trust. It also involves making choices, ahead of time, about matters relating to your death: how you wish to spend your last days, whom you want to be with, and choices relating to your funeral and final resting.
Making these choices now — and designating specific people to carry out your wishes — can make a difference in your dying process and death. By having plans in place, you can turn to what is meaningful: being with loved ones, and allowing yourself to let go of life peacefully.
Fortunately, death planning isn’t difficult. Or especially time-consuming. You may even find the process leads you to rethink how you live your life now.
Below are 5 basic steps to death planning: 1) Consider your preferences, 2) Setup an Advance Healthcare Directive, 3) Pick an executor, 4) Design your Will, 5) Gather your documents, and (optionally) setup a Living Trust.
Five Basic Steps
1. Consider Your Preferences
Death isn’t a choice. But you can make choices about how you die. This step is the most interesting—and also the most involved. Your choices can be included in your Will and Advance Healthcare Directive. Plan a conversation with friends or loved ones, where you take time to reflect on what’s important to you.
In regard to prolonging life.
You can specify the medical treatments or life support you wish to receive (or not receive), in the event of a terminal condition or permanent unconsciousness. Your choices regarding these treatments can be specified in your Advanced Healthcare Directive (Step 2):
- Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR)
- Blood transfusions
- Artificially administered food and water (feeding tube)
- Others (including pain relief, etc)
As part of the Advance Healthcare Directive, you can appoint a person to make medical decisions on your behalf, in the event you are incapacitated (your “healthcare agent”). This person can be a relative, friend or anyone else.
In the dying process.
You can specify preferences for where you wish to die, arrangements for visitors, and those you wish present at your death. Your energy during the dying process will be limited, so the more choices you make now, the better. Again, these wishes can be included in your Advance Healthcare Directive (Step 2). You’ll want to specify, in the write-in section:
- Where you wish to receive end-of-life care (at home, hospital or other)
- Whether you wish to die at home
- Instructions for your room (flowers, decor etc)
- Arrangements with end-of-life doulas (death midwife)
- The names of people who can always visit you (specify that your healthcare agent will schedule visits for everyone else)
- Whether you wish visitors to sleep in your home or elsewhere (a peaceful home may offer a more restful environment)
- Whether you wish to retain consciousness (or be sedated). Whether you prefer to die propped up or lying down
- Who you wish present at your death
- Any other preferences
In the Advance Healthcare Directive, you can specify that your healthcare agent carry out your choices in the dying process. Giving your agent this authority can help avoid misunderstandings and allow you needed rest during the dying process.
In arrangements for your body.
Many options exist for your funeral and final resting. The green burial and death positive movements are making more traditional funeral and burial choices available. These preferences can be included in your Will (Step 4). In the write-in section, clearly specify:
- How long your body remains undisturbed after your death (allowing loved ones to remain with you)
- If you die in a hospital, whether you want an autopsy (if requested) or organ donation (both will occur shortly after death)
- Arrangements with a funeral home
- Whether you want to be embalmed (embalming fluid may contain toxic chemicals. Alternatives include refrigeration, dry ice, and immediate burial)
- Whether you prefer a home funeral (if so, instructions for the care of your body: washing, dressing, and by whom)
- How long your body should lie in repose before disposal (some Buddhist traditions suggest waiting at least 3 days, to aid in the peaceful transition of the deceased)
- Whether you want to be buried (if so, specify where, and whether you want a headstone or other marker. Also specify if you prefer a natural (green) burial, using biodegradable coffins or shrouds instead of traditional vaults)
- Whether you want to be cremated (if so, specify what should be done with your cremains: spread over land, water, incorporated in a living memorial, etc. Also specify if you prefer aquamation, also known as alkaline hydrolysis)
- Whether you wish to receive readings after your death (Tibetan and other traditions offer readings to the deceased, to help the departed in their transition. If so, specify who will do the reading, what will be read, and for how many days)
- Whether you want a memorial service or gathering (specify who should organize it and other details)
- Whether you want an obituary
- Any other preferences
As part of your Will, you can designate a person to act as your funeral agent and carry out your preferences (this person can also be your healthcare agent). Giving this person authority in writing can avoid misunderstandings with others and help smooth the funeral process.
2. Setup Your Advance Healthcare Directive
Also known as a living will or medical power of attorney. Your Advance Healthcare Directive states your end-of-life healthcare preferences and designates a healthcare agent (and backup, if you choose) to make medical decisions on your behalf in the event you are incapacitated. In creating your Advance Healthcare Directive, specify all the preferences you have chosen in Step 1. Several online sites, such as freewill.com, allow you to quickly create this legal document in downloadable PDF.
Once your witnesses sign your document (and a notary, depending on your state), you’re done! Keep the original, signed document. Give a copy to your healthcare agent, backup and anyone else you want to be informed.
3. Pick An Executor
An executor is a person who legally executes your Will after your death. This includes distributing your assets, closing your accounts, and anything else you specify. Pick someone you trust, inform them of the responsibilities, and ask if they’re willing to perform the role. An executor can be anyone of legal age, including a beneficiary. In fact, choosing a beneficiary as an executor may align interests during the execution of your Will, as the time commitment of an executor can be substantial.
It’s also wise to specify a backup executor, if for whatever reason, your first choice is unable to serve.
4. Design Your Will
Rather than a morbid duty, a Will is an opportunity to clarify intentions around your death.
Designing your Will needn’t be complicated—or involve lawyers. Again, freewill.com offers no-charge, click-through creation of a legally-standard, state-specific Will in downloadable PDF. The entire process can take less than than 15 minutes. Creating an account at freewill.com allows you to remind executors of their responsibilities, as well as update your Will in the future.
If you prefer, you can appoint a separate “digital executor” to manage your online presence and accounts. In your Will, you can state preferences for your funeral and final resting place (Step 1)—and designate a funeral agent to carry out your preferences. Your primary executor can perform all of these roles, if you choose.
Have witnesses sign your document. Keep the original, signed document and give a copy to your executor, backup and beneficiaries.
5. Gather Your Documents
It’s crucial your executor can easily access all your documents and accounts, once you’ve passed away. Any missing information will make their job much more difficult. Gather all your data together in one place, such as an encrypted flash drive (or on paper).
This includes: basic data (your name, address, social security and phone number, date and place of birth, and your parents’ full names), account numbers and login information for banking and credit cards, insurance, utilities, social media, email and other online accounts. Also include digital copies of deeds, mortgages, leases, tax records, credit reports, and your driver’s license and birth certificate. And, of course, a copy of your Will and Advance Healthcare Directive.
Be thorough. Include as much information as possible (passwords to your devices, location of house keys, garage codes). You never know what your executor will need.
Keep it simple. Avoid proprietary files like Microsoft Word or Apple Pages (your executor may not use the software). Instead create text files directly on your encrypted drive (to avoid leaving duplicates on your computer) and then lock the files to prevent accidental changes. You can also use folders with PDFs of your data. Don’t use your drive for anything else. Store it somewhere secure (remember, it contains passwords to your financial accounts)—a fireproof safe in your home or other location.
Inform your executor (and your backup) of your flash drive location and password. This is critical: if your executor loses the password, they won’t be able to access any of your data. Finally, pick a dedicated day each year to review your documents and keep them updated.
Alternately, if you prefer, companies like Everplans can help you organize your information (for an annual fee).
Consider A Living Trust
A Living Trust has advantages over a Will—however, the two documents are often used in tandem. The main benefit of a Living Trust—as opposed to a Will alone—is avoiding probate, a court-supervised process for settling Wills which involves court appearances, time and fees. A Living Trust is also a private document, whereas probate is a public record.
Living Trusts are state-specific, so you’ll want to research the laws in the state where you live. In California, for example, estates valued at less than $150,000 can avoid probate without a Living Trust.
LawDepot lets you create a state-specific Living Trust online (a subscription is required for download). Creating a living trust can be complex—involving the transfer of your assets into the trust—so it may be advisable to consult a professional.
Have more questions?
A Path Home (podcast on home funerals)
Art of Dying Institute (NYC events and courses on dying)
Ask a Death Doula (podcast on death doulas)
Ask a Mortician (YouTube channel with practical advice)
Better Place Forests (nature memorials for cremains)
Clarity Funerals (death positive LA funeral home)
Coffin Club (community-based DIY coffin building)
Death Cafe (meetups for discussions on death)
DeathLAB (mortuary design at Columbia University)
Death in the Afternoon (all-things-death podcast)
Death Over Dinner (plan a dinner discussing death)
Everplans (end-of-life planning company)
Green Burial Council (all-things green burial)
INELDA (International End of Life Doula Association)
NHFA (National Home Funeral Alliance)
The Conversation Project (starter kit for discussing end-of-life care)
The Order of the Good Death (death positive website)