Estates 101: The first bills you pay

Okay, I hate this.  I hate that so much of what one has to think about regarding a loved one’s death is how to pay bills.  But welcome to a capitalist society.  You have to pay the bills.  The person has to be embalmed or cremated; that costs money.  The grave has to be dug open and then filled in; that costs money.  And what’s worse, those things have to happen fast, and the money to do it doesn’t come fast.

So along with all the pain and grief, you get to deal with this.

Note that I’m not getting into details of “does someone even have to be buried at all”: different localities have different laws about scattering cremated remains (in which case you’re still going to pay for the cremation), or donating a body for medical education or research, or whatever.  I know that when I die, I do not want the sort of funeral my mom had.  But my mom is probably more typical of an American’s funeral plans than I am, so I’m telling you what it was like for hers.

Who’s responsible for these things? When I get to the priority of estate debts in a later article, you’ll see that the estate (as a legal entity) is ultimately responsible for paying for these things, not you.  But the estate may not have liquid money on hand if the person did not have a lot of money in the bank. (And if your name wasn’t also on the bank accounts, you won’t be able to use the money for the funeral or burial until the estate is set up and you’re sworn in as the representative, and that won’t happen in time for a typical funeral.)

In our case, we paid for this with life insurance money, joint bank account money I received, and our own personal savings, and the estate will later reimburse us for it.

The funeral expenses.  This really, really sucks.  Funerals are not cheap.  My mom’s was fairly modest but still came in at about $9400.  That included: embalming the body for viewing (a practice I despise, but my mom wanted it so she got it), having the space at the funeral home for the viewings, paying for the coffin and burial vault (the vault is the concrete or metal structure that encloses the coffin in the grave and protects it from water; this is required by law in PA, so you can’t skimp on it even if you want to), the prayer/memento cards at the funeral home, guest book and all those other little things.

Another part of the funeral bill which is easy to forget is obituaries.  The funeral home will spend the money with the newspapers on your behalf and bill you for it later.  The longer the obituary, the more expensive; the more days you choose to run it in papers, the more expensive; and the more newspapers you run it in, the more expensive.  (We ran my mom’s in three papers for three days and it added $900 to the costs of the funeral.)

In our case, the funeral home gave us 45 days from the day of the funeral to pay the bill.  That’s not actually a lot of time, although when you’re in the initial stages of grief it seems like a miracle just to get through a single day.  We just got one of the life insurance policies paid to us under the wire.

Now mind you, the funeral home’s payment policy is fairly generous in terms of the low interest they charge on the unpaid amount.  But again, my wife and I are in a position where $9400 of our own money, without the life insurance, would have sucked a lot but wouldn’t have ruined us.  Not everyone I know is so fortunate.

The burial expenses. That $9400 was just the funeral home and associated things.  We had to pay $1420 to the cemetery for the burial itself and the ceremony at the cemetery.  (In our case we chose to have the ceremony in the cemetery’s chapel rather than graveside; it was late October and my mother had many elderly friends, and we didn’t want them walking over damp graves and standing in the cold.)

The burial expenses have to be paid up front, before the burial can even happen.  Literally two days after my mom died, we shelled out that $1420.  Now you may have a way out: Funeral homes are able to work with cemeteries and advance them the money for the burial, much like they advance the money for the obituaries.  If you cannot afford to pay for the burial the week the person died, this is an option you may be able to use.  Ask your funeral director.

The burial plot. You can buy a plot at a cemetery in advance, and if reasonably possible, you should.  My mom owned two unused plots at the cemetery (one for her, and one, I suppose, for me), so we “only” had to pay the $1420 for the opening and burial and ceremony.  If she hadn’t already owned the plot, it would have cost another $2000 to buy a plot at that cemetery (and again, we would have had to pay in full for it before the burial could happen).

Life insurance may help with the funeral, but it won’t help in the first week.  You can’t file a life insurance claim without a death certificate to prove the person has died; you won’t have one of those for a few days into the funeral process; it’ll probably take the life insurance company a couple weeks at minimum to process the claim (and that’s without contestability, as I explained in a previous article).

So plan ahead if possible.  Talk to the funeral home in advance of your death: will they give a cash advance to the cemetery to pay for the burial?  Is your plot already picked out and paid for?

Excess grave. Now this is kind of a side note to the whole thing, but as I said, there’s one plot left out at the cemetery for me.  But maybe I don’t even want to be buried there (or at all).  What do I do with the remaining plot?  Well, the cemetery won’t buy it back from me, but they said we can sell it through any means we like.  I was sorta dumbfounded and said “What, you mean like eBay or something?” They said “eBay, Craigslist, however you want to sell it and for however much you can get for it.”  Some cemeteries might buy back plots; you’ll have to consult the cemetery’s management.

Flowers.  The funeral home may provide some of these in a funeral package, and friends may send some as well, but if you want to ensure there’s at least some, you’re buying them too.  We spent a little over $400 for my mom’s, and that was not too extravagant given some of the options available.

The grave marker.  The grave marker cost about $1200 more, but you can buy the marker at any later date, when you can afford it.  (My great-grandfather (shamefully) didn’t have a marker on his grave for decades until my mom decided it was a terrible thing and shelled out for it.  Why, I don’t know, because my grandparents could have afforded it many times over.)  Still, the marker won’t generally be ordered and installed until it’s paid in full.  (Again, my wife and I are fortunate; we paid for the marker in full the same day we paid for the burial.)

The death certificates.  As I mentioned in a previous post, you need death certificates for almost any sort of business you transact on behalf of the deceased.  The funeral home will produce an initial batch of these for you.  We ordered twenty, because we knew my mom had a variety of accounts to be closed; we needed one for her cable TV, for example, and for each of her life insurance policies, and for each of the retailers she had a store credit card with.

This is a small investment.  In Pennsylvania, the certificates are $6 each until 90 days after the death, and the funeral home can generate more for you; after that time, you have to go to a courthouse which does vital records, which may be less convenient than the funeral home, and they cost $9 apiece.  Compared with the rest of the expenses, $60 to $120 for ten to twenty death certificates is not likely to be a dealbreaker.  Once again, like the obituaries, the funeral home pays the state in advance to generate the initial batch, and it’s part of the bill.  So our $120 was part of the $9400.

Disclaimer: I AM NOT A LAWYER.  NONE OF WHAT I SAY HERE SHOULD BE CONSTRUED AS LEGAL ADVICE.  A LICENSED LAWYER SHOULD BE CONSULTED ON ALL LEGAL MATTERS PERTAINING TO ESTATES. The purpose of this article is to tell you some things I learned in the process of dealing with my mom’s estate, which you may want to think about in planning your own estate or dealing with a loved one’s estate.  Furthermore, details of some of these matters differ from state to state, so if you’re not in Pennsylvania, things may be different.  Consult your lawyer on all matters.