The many functions of an estate plan

Estate planning to a large extent involves the optimal structuring and managing of your assets while you are still alive.

By Devon Card

A person’s estate is made up of all the assets and liabilities they’ve accumulated during their lifetime and, although estate planning is often perceived as something performed in preparation for death, the reality is estate planning to a large extent involves the optimal structuring and managing of your assets while you are still alive.

As a result, it is important not to perceive estate planning as final stage financial planning designed to secure a financial legacy for your loved ones, but rather as a continuous process of managing one’s assets and liabilities throughout your lifetime to ensure that your estate is optimally designed to achieve both your lifetime goals and your objectives following your death. Being multi-disciplinary by nature, your estate plan can be used to achieve many goals:

Determining estate liquidity

Liquidity in your estate is key to ensuring that your estate costs and liabilities can be provided for without compromising the financial inheritance intended for your loved ones. In preparing liquidity calculations, you will need to take into consideration the potential tax, capital gains and estate duty liabilities in your estate, as well as any debt owing – keeping in mind that when it comes to estate administration, Sars and your creditors will be paid first, following which the remaining balance in your estate, if any, will be distributed amongst your heirs. This means that, if there is not enough liquid cash available in your estate to settle with Sars and your creditors, your executor may need to realise assets – such as your primary residence, vehicles, holiday home, or other valuable assets – in order to pay off the estate’s debts. This, in turn, can severely compromise the financial security of your spouse and/or children, who may well be left destitute as a result of inadequate estate planning.

What to consider: Life cover is an excellent mechanism for creating liquidity in your estate and for avoiding the forced sale of assets intended for your loved ones. It is, however, important to ensure that your life cover is appropriately structured to achieve the goal of creating liquidity. Where you nominate your estate as a beneficiary to your life policy, the proceeds will be paid directly into your deceased estate in the event of death and, as such, can be used to settle debt. Remember, however, that the proceeds of domestic life policies are considered deemed property in your estate and will be taken into account for estate duty purposes, so this should be factored into the calculation.

Ensuring beneficiary nomination

Rather than being a once-off task, beneficiary nomination is something that should be reviewed and updated as your personal and financial circumstances change through your lifetime. Further, understanding how beneficiary nomination works in respect of each type of policy or investment is important to ensure that your objectives are met.

For instance, while your children are minors and legally not capable of inheriting, you may use a testamentary trust structure as the beneficiary for your life cover; whereas as your children reach the age of majority, you may want to name them personally as the beneficiaries to this cover to ensure that the proceeds are paid to them directly.

Further, if your intention is for the proceeds of your retirement funds is to provide for your loved one’s financial security, it is important to understand the limitations that Section 37C of the Pension Funds Act brings to the process. Unlike beneficiary nomination on life policies, the distribution of retirement funds benefits (being pension, provident, preservation, and retirement annuity funds) lies ultimately with the fund trustees whose job it is to identify all your financial dependants and to allocate the benefits accordingly – and their determination may not be in line with your wishes.

What to consider: Make a concerted effort to review the beneficiary nomination on your policies and investments on at least an annual basis, and upon any major life event such as the birth of a child, a death in the family, marriage, or divorce.

Drafting your legacy documents

Naturally, an important part of estate planning is to ensure that your legacy documents are appropriately drafted and valid and that they are fully aligned with how you wish your estate to be distributed in the event of death. Along with a well-drafted will, the collation of an estate planning file can be invaluable to your loved ones and to expedite the process of winding up your estate. Essential documents to include your estate planning file include obvious ones such as your birth certificate, marriage certificate, antenuptial contract, divorce certificate, maintenance orders, title deeds, trust deeds and share certificates. Other information that can be kept close at hand includes gun licences, codes for your safe, loan agreements, digital passwords and log on credentials, and alarm codes.

What to consider: A living will can be a valuable document for your loved ones should tragedy strike. In this document, you can provide much-needed guidance to your family and medical doctor regarding end-of-life medical care and treatment – something that can provide great comfort to your loved ones who may be faced with tough medical decisions. Through a living will, you can request that medical treatment that would prolong your life be withheld in circumstances where you are in a permanent, vegetative status, irreversibly unconscious, or where there is no hope of recovery.

Protecting the inheritance of minors

If you have minor children, structuring your estate to ensure that they are adequately provided for in the event of your passing will be imperative. Remember, children under the age of 18 may not inherit lump-sum payouts or other assets directly as they are deemed not to have the legal capacity to manage such assets. Thus, if you intend to nominate a minor child to a life insurance policy or bequeathing immovable property to them, it is important to understand the estate planning mechanisms available to ensure that your objectives are achieved. This could include the formation of a testamentary trust in terms of your will with your minor child as the named beneficiary to the trust. In the event of your death, any assets intended for your minor children can be left to the trust which, in turn, will manage the trust assets until your child reaches the age of majority.

What to consider: If you have a minor child, your will should also make provision for a legal guardian for your child in the event of your death. While your nominated guardian can also be a trustee of the testamentary trust, it is sometimes preferable to keep the roles separate for the sake of maintaining checks and balances.

Ensuring efficient estate administration

Effective estate planning allows one to put mechanisms in place in advance to ensure that in the event of your death the winding-up processes can be expedited and unnecessary delays can be avoided. Simple steps such as ensuring the validity of your will, communicating the location of your original will, appointing a professional executor, and keeping a file of all your estate planning documents, can be hugely beneficial when it comes to streamlining the estate administration process.

For instance, if you no longer have a copy of your marriage certificate, your executor will need to apply for a copy at the Department of Home Affairs which, in turn, will delay the administration process.

What to consider: Executorship is a highly specialised function that requires expertise in finance, deceased estates, trusts and accounting. As a result, think carefully before appointing a family member or close friend as executor. Inexperience and/or lack of understanding with regard to the estate administration process can cause unnecessary delays. Also, remember that family relationships and dynamics change over time, and it may be preferable to appoint a fiduciary expert to this role.

Reducing tax liabilities

While it is not possible to avoid paying tax, proactive estate planning gives you the opportunity to structure your estate so as to reduce the tax obligations of your estate in the event of death. Estate duty, which is essentially tax paid on the transference of wealth from your deceased estate to your beneficiaries is levied at 20% of the dutiable amount of an estate up to R30 million, and at 25% on the dutiable amount exceeding R30 million. Very simplistically, the dutiable value of your deceased estate will be calculated by adding the value of your property, deducting any allowable expenses, and then deducting the Section 4A rebate, keeping in mind that as a South African resident you will be taxed on your worldwide assets.

There are, however, a number of mechanisms that you can use to reduce the estate duty liability in your estate so as to maximise the inheritance of your loved ones. Compulsory retirement funds, including pension, provident, preservation and retirement annuity funds, are not considered property in your deceased estate and these benefits will not be subject to estate duty.

Living annuities are very useful estate planning tools because they also fall outside your estate and are not estate dutiable, while domestic life policies can also be used effectively to provide financially for your loved ones while ensuring that no estate duty is payable on the proceeds. Trusts, which are dealt with in the paragraph below, are also effective in housing growth assets and reducing estate duty liabilities in one’s deceased estate.

What to consider: When using living annuities and domestic life policies to reduce your estate duty liability, it is important to correctly nominate your beneficiaries.

Structuring growth assets appropriately

In terms of the Income Tax Act, death is considered a capital gains event and the deceased person is deemed to have disposed of their assets for an amount equal to the market value of the assets at the date of death. While the Act provides for a once-off exclusion of R300 000 in the year of death, any amount thereafter will have an inclusion rate of 40% subject to tax as per the deceased’s marginal tax rate. To avoid unnecessary CGT being charged in the event of death, an estate plan can help structure growth assets, such as property or shares, to reduce the tax liabilities in your deceased estate.

An effective mechanism for housing growth assets, particularly those intended for future generations, is an inter vivos trust during one’s lifetime. As the trust founder, you would need to either donate or sell the asset to the trust in the form of a loan account following which you would relinquish control of the asset which, going forward, would be managed by the trustees on behalf of the nominated beneficiaries. By transferring a growth asset – such as a holiday home – to a living trust, all growth on the property will remain in the trust and only the loan account to the seller will be repayable on death thereby reducing estate duty.

What to consider: As a trust founder, it is important to fully understand the implications of transferring an asset into a trust structure. Once the asset is transferred, you are no longer the owner of that asset, and your trustees are responsible for taking full control of the asset and administering it in accordance with the trust deed.

Complete Article HERE!

Surviving Spouse Financial Checklist

— Preparing For The Road Ahead

By Jonathan I. Shenkman

The death of a spouse is devastating. There is the obvious sadness experienced due to the loss of a loved one. However, there is also the challenge of losing a life partner who helped you make various important decisions. For years, or perhaps decades, a couple likely worked together to tackle important decisions about their kids, home, health, vacations, and of course finances. After a spouse’s death there are still many important money choices that need to be made to prepare the surviving spouse for their future. Navigating through those responsibilities may seem overwhelming. Working through a financial checklist may make the process a bit more manageable. Below are ten steps to consider.

1) Obtain copies of the death certificate: Having a death certificate is essential to winding down the affairs of a deceased person. You will need to submit it under many situations, including each time you claim benefits like Social Security, life insurance proceeds, payable on death accounts, or veterans’ benefits.

The easiest way to obtain a death certificate is through the funeral home or mortuary at the time of the death. It’s advisable to ask for multiple official copies, usually at least 10, since many requests will require an original. For deaths that occurred within the past few months, you can also get a death certificate from your state’s Department of Health or Office of Vital Statistics.

2) Contact Your Advisors: If you work with a team of trusted advisors, such as an attorney, accountant, and financial advisor, you should reach out to them relatively early in the process. These professionals may have all the pertinent files regarding your family’s finances, so you don’t have to go searching for them.

Your attorney should have a copy of the original will in their office and can review it with you and discuss next steps. If probate is necessary, an attorney can guide you through the process and any necessary court filings. Finally, they can also help with determining if the deceased’s estate will cover existing debts in their name or what your liability may be.

Your accountant can address the various tax implications. Taxes for a deceased spouse should be filed and paid in the year of death. This includes filing Estate Tax Form 706 and any other forms that may need to be filed with federal, state, and local tax authorities.

Immediately following a spouse’s death, your financial advisor can help process the transfer and consolidation of certain accounts. For example, the funds from a deceased spouse’s IRA can rollover to the IRA of the surviving spouse. Additionally, accounts that were titled Transferred on Death or Joint Tenant With the Right of Survivorship will be transferred into the surviving spouse’s name. If the financial advisor also handled your insurance, they could work with you to get the death benefit from a life insurance policy in a timely manner.

The financial advisor can also coordinate with the attorney and CPA on various estate and planning matters. They may set up a designated estate account with funds for the executor of the estate to settle the deceased person’s unfinished affairs. If any trusts were established for estate planning purposes, the advisor can address how these fit into the broader estate plan and ensure they are funded and implemented correctly.

Looking forward, you should set up a planning meeting with your team of advisors to assess your new financial reality and share your goals for the future. Together, they will be able to put together a customized plan to reach those objectives. They may also be able to serve as a sounding board, helping to facilitate prudent decisions, and shouldering some of the responsibility your spouse shared while they were alive.

3) Contact The Social Security Administration: Be sure to reach out to the Social Security Administration (800-772-1213). You may be entitled to Social Security survivor benefits and you should also put the deceased person on the Social Security Master Death Index to prevent potential fraud. Additionally, you may want to speak to your financial advisor about coordinating social security benefits with your other financial and income goals.

4) Reach Out To Your Spouse’s Employer: In addition to informing the employer of your spouse’s death, it’s worth speaking with their human resources department about any potential benefits such as life and medical coverage and retirement or pension plans. There may also be compensation due, such as stock options or bonuses that were already earned. If your family was covered through your spouse’s medical insurance, you will need to ask how long you can continue that coverage. There is typically extended healthcare coverage through COBRA for 18 months. If your spouse belonged to a labor union, you should also contact the union to see if they offer any assistance.

If your spouse worked at several companies over their career, it may make sense to reach out to each to see if there are old retirement accounts or pensions that were never rolled over to an IRA. These funds may add up and should not be overlooked.

5) Update All Property Titles: It’s important to update all ownership documents to remove your spouse’s name, including your auto and homeowner’s insurance policies. When retitling your home, determine if the mortgage has insurance that would pay it off in the event of a death. To update the title of a property that is held jointly you must inform the Land Registry of the death and send them a completed “deceased joint proprietor” form (available on the government’s website) with an official copy of the death certificate.

6) Identify Your Spouse’s Debts:  Make time to call each of your spouse’s creditors to determine its policies. Common debts may include a mortgage, credit cards, business loans, and student loans. You should cancel all credit cards in your spouse’s name and update any cards you held jointly.

7) Child Support or Alimony: If your spouse was previously married, their death likely terminates any existing spousal support order unless the parties had otherwise agreed in writing. Discussing the matter with your attorney is advisable to ensure it is handled correctly and all loose ends are tied.

8) Update Your Own Documents: After the death of your spouse, much of your previous financial planning will need to be updated or revised. This includes updating your beneficiaries across retirement accounts, insurance policies and revisiting your power of attorney and healthcare proxy to ensure the correct people are listed in case a need arises. You should also update your tax withholding status and medical coverage through your employer.

9) Keep An Eye On Your Mail: After such a traumatic experience, there will likely be some items that fell through the cracks. A good way to stay on top of closing out your spouse’s affairs is to pay close attention to the stream of letters you receive. Over time you will receive utility bills, charitable solicitations, account statements, subscriptions, and other pertinent items. You can deal with each item as it comes in. This will help alleviate the stress of trying to update everything all at once and will hopefully result in having everything updated within a few months’ time.

10) Consider Postponing Major Financial Decisions: On occasion, drastic changes need to take place immediately after the death of a spouse. For example, if the living arrangement of the surviving spouse is no longer sustainable then selling the family home may be required. However, if a matter is not pressing, then you should wait to act. Unfortunately, widows are preyed upon by unscrupulous salespeople in all lines of work. It’s important to get comfortable telling people that you are putting all major decisions on hold for a year while you get your bearings and heal emotionally. It may also be wise to enlist the help of a trusted family member or friend to serve as a sounding board when making choices about your financial future.

During the initial stages of the grieving process, you may feel like your life has been turned upside down. Your emotional, mental and physical condition has undoubtedly changed. However, over time, with the support of friends and family and the guidance of trusted advisors, you will be able to move forward from this difficult period in your life and prepare for what lies ahead.

Complete Article HERE!

4 ways to improve the lives of older people

By Prakash Tyagi

  • By 2050, it is expected there will be more humans over 60 than under 15 for the first time in history.
  • Older people are harder hit by poverty and ill-health, necessitating better support structures be put in place.
  • The UN Decade of Healthy Ageing gives a framework for improving older people’s lives.

Population ageing and the resulting demographic transition around the world present complex challenges. It is estimated that the global population of older persons will rise by 56% between 2015 and 2030, from 956 million to 1.4 billion, and hit the 2.1 billion mark by 2050. Between 2015 and 2050, the proportion of the 60+ age group globally is expected to rise from 12% to a staggering 22%. People over 60 will outnumber those below the age of 15 for the first time in history.

The transition is rapid and dramatic, and uneven in different parts of the world. While it took France about 150 years to rise from 10% to 20% of the population being older than 60, a similar transition will occur India, China and Brazil in about 20 years. In high-income countries, the proportions of older people have been rising gradually, with over 28% of Japan’s population already being over 65 years of age.

The proportion of older people worldwide is ageing
The proportion of older people worldwide is ageing Image: UN

Large numbers of older people, particularly in lower- and middle-income countries, live in severe poverty and in poor health, with no or limited access to basic health services and social protection benefits. There are gender disparities too, with older women experiencing greater deprivation. Research suggests that in sub-Saharan Africa households headed by older women live in greater poverty compared to households headed by men of equivalent age. Furthermore, the correlation between ageing and disability is clear, with over 46% of older people worldwide living with some form of disability. Over 250 million older people have moderate to severe disabilities. These numbers are likely to rise further, causing more hardship.

This significant demographic transition means there is unprecedented need for age-friendly and responsive healthcare systems and a range of coordinated services to address the complex needs of this ageing global population.

The proposal of observing a Decade of Healthy Ageing from 2021 to 2030 was adopted by the UN General Assembly last December. This global collaboration is led by the World Health Organization (WHO) and will bring together governments, civil society, international agencies, professionals, academia, the media, and the private sector, in alignment with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

To foster healthy ageing and to improve the lives of older people, the Decade of Healthy Ageing will focus on four action areas. The first is to create and strengthen age-friendly environments by removing physical and social barriers and by converting them into better places to live and to age. The second is to combat ageism: Older people, despite their significant contributions to society, are often overlooked and subject to prejudice. Such stereotyping and discrimination must be addressed.

The third is to provide integrated care. All older people should have non-discriminatory access to integrated care, which should include but is not limited to: prevention, promotive, curative, rehabilitative, and palliative and “end of life” care – which must be safe, affordable and of good quality. The fourth is to support long-term care (LTC). With significant decline in their mental and physical capacities, many older people are unable to live an independent life or to actively participate in society. Hence, access to good LTC services is essential to maintain their functional ability, to ensure that they enjoy basic human rights and that they live a life with dignity.

Numbers of older people above 60 by world regions
Numbers of older people above 60 by world regions Image: UN

Four further enablers will be critical to the Decade of Healthy Ageing: engaging directly with the voices of older people; leadership development and capacity-building at all levels; connecting all stakeholders; and strengthening research, data and innovation.

The decade, its action areas and enablers lay out a solid framework to foster healthy ageing around the world. However, stronger efforts will have to be made into converting a theoretical framework into practical and measurable actions. To date, progress has been limited and further delayed by priorities imposed by the pandemic. On 1 October, International Day of the Older Persons (IDOP), which this year has a theme of Digital Equity for All Ages, is an important opportunity to take stock of what has been achieved.

Looking ahead, it may be worthwhile to categorize basic needs into groups. The first is to design a comprehensive communication mechanism and to deliver the decade of healthy ageing messages to all stakeholders, most importantly to older people themselves. The sooner the information disseminates and is well understood, the more active the stakeholder participation should be.

A second key group of needs is to develop a strategy for partnerships that are going to be crucial in engagement of key groups, delivery of services and for research and advocacy. Civil society, government agencies and the private sector are three important constituents of the partnerships spectrum, and a clear plan for involving them must be developed at both macro and micro levels.

A third is to create guiding groups at national level (and at provincial or sub-national levels too in the case of larger countries) comprising representatives from different sectors who can ensure dynamic planning, implementation and monitoring of actions.

Fourthly, the decade also provides an important opportunity to strengthen LTC services and improve integrated care – fundamentally important blocks of healthy ageing that require greater attention. Community-based LTC will have to be reinforced by promoting self-care and by training and capacity-building of formal and informal caregivers. Primary care needs must be addressed in remote and rural settings, assuring integrated care for older people. Existing models and past experiences from Help Age Global network and from organizations like GRAVIS in India may provide replicable insights. The knowledge accumulated by senior-age people’s organizations, especially how to strengthen intergenerational exchanges to ensure lifelong application of healthy ageing principles, is a valuable resource worth utilizing.

COVID-19-related challenges are already a hindrance and will likely continue to hamper progress on healthy ageing for many years. Mitigation strategies will have to be worked out in advance in the context of community education and delivery of care services using digital education, telemedicine and within COVID guidelines, keeping the local context and situation in view. Existing healthcare infrastructure overburdened by the pandemic will have to be used judiciously. Future of Work

What is the World Economic Forum doing about including older people in the workforce?

There is a global myth that productivity declines as workers age. In fact, including older workers is an untapped source for growth.

The world has entered a new phase of demographic development where people are living longer and healthier lives. As government pension schemes are generally ill-equipped to manage this change, insurers and other private-sector stakeholders have an opportunity to step in.

The World Economic Forum, along with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and AARP, have created a learning collaborative with over 50 global employers including AIG, Allianz, Aegon, Home Instead, Invesco and Mercer. These companies represent over two million employees and $1 trillion in annual revenue.

Complete Article HERE!

How ‘Big Funeral’ Made the Afterlife So Expensive

It’s time to reevaluate the cost of death care—and its environmental impact.


“You can’t die these days because it’s too expensive,” Randy Hinojosa told Time last year. Hinojosa had just paid $15,000 for a funeral for his wife of 26 years, after she died of the coronavirus. Like thousands of families coping with unexpected pandemic funeral costs, he drained his savings and launched a crowdfunding campaign to recoup some of the losses. “I didn’t even want to ask anybody for money,” Hinojosa said, crying. “I had this pride that I could do this.”

The pandemic, which has killed 690,000 Americans and counting, has magnified the importance of swift, respectful disposition of the dead—and the untenable cost of doing business in the current system. In 2019, the average funeral cost $9,135, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. That included viewing and burial, but not dwindling cemetery space or big-ticket items like monuments and other grave markers. Even cremation, for decades promoted as a cheaper (and greener) alternative to burial, now averages $6,645.

These practices are not just financially devastating, they’re also environmentally calamitous. In addition to human remains, traditional burial puts an estimated 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete and 800,000 gallons of formaldehyde—a chemical used in embalming and a probable carcinogen—into the earth each year. Cremation, meanwhile, generates an estimated 534.6 pounds of carbon dioxide per person—more than the per capita emissions of Afghanistan.

These harsh end-of-life economics have contributed to a crisis of funeral poverty in the US, says Victoria J. Haneman, a professor at Creighton University School of Law in Nebraska. Funeral poverty existed long before the pandemic and, without significant reform to both the funeral industry and to national and local systems of funeral aid, many families will continue to struggle with growing credit card debt and new personal loans amidst their crushing grief.

In the worst-case scenario, people will be forced to leave their loved ones unclaimed in county custody, where sheriffs, medical examiners, social workers, chaplains, and others will cremate or bury the remains. In the US, as many as 3 percent of bodies are left unclaimed each year, a number that has reportedly risen due to economic inequality, the opioid epidemic, and the pandemic.

Though the US has the resources to guarantee everyone a proper burial, they’re not evenly distributed. “We should not be normalizing the $9,000 as the average cost of a funeral,” Haneman says. “Not only is that staggering, it’s wholly unnecessary.”

For most of American history, people died at home, where they were tended to by loved ones. Women in the community prepared the body, while men made the casket. That started to change with the Civil War, where death occurred on faraway battlefields. Enterprising morticians subsequently popularized embalming, a preservation technique that allowed families to ship bodies long distances so those who died could be buried where they had lived.

Today, death is a $20 billion industry. (That’s similar to the total revenue for the global music business in 2019, or the market for meat substitutes.) In its most corporate and cynical forms, it’s marked by largely unchecked pricing, including markups as high as 500 percent on caskets. It’s also defined by decades of resistance to innovation, even as public attitudes toward death are shifting. In 2015, for example, one funeral conglomerate estimated that for every 1 percent of its customers who chose cremation the company lost about $10 million—a “problem” some morticians attempt to solve by selling families often-unnecessary services and products, from pre-cremation embalming to pricy urns.

Where many communities were once served by small mom-and-pop funeral shops, the death-care landscape has been transformed by shareholder-driven companies. Service Corporation International is the largest funeral services provider in North America, with over 1,500 funeral homes and 500 cemeteries in its portfolio, accounting for roughly 16 percent of the overall market share. Instead of lowering prices as it has scaled, SCI prices average 47 to 72 percent higher than those of its competitors, according to a 2017 report coauthored by the Funeral Consumers Alliance. The only people who don’t seem to mind are investors, whose stock is up 151 percent over five years. Thanks to the efforts of Big Funeral, the industry holds a monopoly on the afterlife—and it’s pricing people out of dying.

But reining in these profit-driven companies has proven difficult, as their practices are often supported by local statutes. For example, two-thirds of states have onerous “ready to embalm” laws that require funeral directors to have access to an embalming room, even if they don’t want to offer the service or families don’t request it. These regulations persist despite the fact that embalming isn’t necessary in the case of cremation, which half of Americans now choose, and that green burial grounds—an increasingly popular choice among the eco-conscious—typically forbid the practice in order to prevent contamination of the soil. In New York State, the cost to maintain such facilities is passed on to consumers (in the form of higher funeral prices) to the tune of $25.8 million annually.

To date, the best efforts to curb these practices have come from the funeral consumers’ movement, spurred on by muckraker Jessica Mitford’s 1963 book The American Way of Death, which found evidence of widespread predatory pricing and disinformation in the industry. In the 1970s, the Federal Trade Commissions instituted its Funeral Rule, which requires that funeral service providers offer prospective customers accurate, itemized prices. Yet in 2020, the agency’s own undercover investigators found that roughly 19 percent of funeral homes they visited in five states failed to disclose adequate pricing information.

Part of the problem is that many people feel that the sticker price of a solid mahogany coffin or a ceramic urn reflects their love and respect for the dead. And even if they wanted to find a cheaper alternative, with so many Americans unable or unwilling to plan for their death, families are often left to organize and finance funerals under duress. It’s no wonder the majority of them will use the first funeral home they contact, without conducting a price comparison.

While business as usual remains clearly exploitative, it’s hard for many Americans to envision an alternative. But death care doesn’t have to be so commercialized, says Joshua Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance. “That is not a natural law.”

Today, the federal government, as well as many state and local agencies, provides some assistance to families who might otherwise struggle to bury their kin. But these funds are not always accessible, and reimbursement is typically meager. In 2020, for example, the Social Security Administration set the cap on funeral grants to $255 a person—and it issues aid only to select heirs.

That’s what made the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s decision to reimburse the families of people in the US killed by Covid-19 up to $9,000 for funeral costs so unprecedented. While FEMA has provided burial assistance in the wake of natural disasters before, the pandemic relief effort is of a different magnitude. As of September, FEMA has awarded over $1 billion to more than 165,000 people.

FEMA’s remarkable support should have been a model for federal funeral assistance, with or without disaster, for decades to come. But by doling out aid without any attempts at environmental, economic, or other reform of the funeral industry, the program effectively subsidized it. “We had this fantastic opportunity to use this moment to not only pay for death care but to also promote environmental initiatives and innovative death technology,” Haneman says. We failed.

Even so, the pandemic has encouraged many people to reconceive death care as the end point on the continuum of health care, says Philip Olson, a technology ethicist at Virginia Tech who studies death. Funeral directors are now seen as #LastResponders who pick up where doctors left off. In an ideal world, both kinds of care would be universally accessible and focused on quality, not profit.

In 2016, Olson ran for the board of directors of the Funeral Consumers Alliance. He made government-funded death care his platform, but the idea of a socialized system was one few in the organization were willing to broach. Some consumer advocates worry that universal death care will inevitably benefit the funeral industry, whose worst practices they aim to curb. (“Big warning flags go up in my head when I hear ‘subsidy,’” Slocum told me, adding, “is that charity for the family, or a subsidized profit to the funeral home?”) But Olson still believes that funeral costs could and should be covered, perhaps through a future expansion of Medicare, a federal health insurance program primarily for Americans 65 and older.

Medicare is funded by several sources, most notably the payroll taxes of those currently in the workforce. That money is used to cover hospital, skilled nursing, and hospital services for enrollees, as well as some outpatient services and prescription drugs. Olson says taxpayer dollars could be distributed to ensure minimum coverage for funeral expenses, too. If health is a human right, as the World Health Organization claims, the dignified treatment of human remains should be, too. In the end, Thanatos comes for us all.

There’s some international precedent for such a system: In Sweden, every resident is guaranteed a funeral service and burial or cremation. In 1990, the government instituted a burial tax calibrated to the area in which someone lives (and presumably dies and is buried), as well as their income level.

When a Swede dies, their family automatically receives space for storing and viewing the body, a ceremony hall free from religious symbols, a grave or equivalent in a public cemetery for 25 years, coverage for the cost of burial or cremation, and some limited transportation. Other items, such as a coffin or urn, tombstone, funeral officiant, decorations, and reception, are not included. Nonetheless, the average cost of a funeral in Sweden in 2014 was just $2,897.

Right now, the Biden administration is advancing a law that, if passed, would allow Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices. In the same way, universal death care coverage could negotiate the cost of coffin prices and other funeral services and supplies. While not everything could (or should) be covered, the essentials would be guaranteed to everyone. The government could also make it a point to incentivize green death care options, including natural burial, aquamation, human composting, and mushroom suits. In the process, Olson says it could lead to a sizable shift in power by challenging the primacy of what he calls “funeral industrialists” (funeral directors, cremationists, cemetery managers, and others) and biomedical experts, and raising up advocates of alternative approaches like home funerals, DIY caskets, and more.

“There are other ways of thinking about ourselves, not just as funeral consumers,” Olson says, “but as mourners, grievers, as members of a society in which the management of the dead is a social necessity.”

Complete Article HERE!

Death’s Price Tag: An inevitable trauma

By Judas Cote

In the spirit of October, I figured I should speak on a topic I’m passionate about, as someone considering end-of-life care as a career (I gag at the connotation of making a career of death care, but such is the nature of capitalism): the funeral industry. Let that phrase sink in for a second: Funeral. Industry. Death that generates financial capital. Death, a necessary and inevitable part of the human experience, costs and generates money.

Death is a tough subject, and for good reason. It’s a reminder of all of our mortalities, and that’s a lot to be confronted with, especially considering how capitalism makes us proletarians believe that we’re inhuman, that we’ll simply be exploited for an indeterminate amount of time, and then disappear from relevance. This alienation from mortality and personhood diminishes the depth of life brought about by our own mortality, and then, once confronted with it, the capitalist robo-proletarian illusion shatters, bringing great distress but no room to heal from it due to the standard 9 to 5 workday and low wages.

Let me step back and explain what I mean by this though. Many people work some variation of an eight hour shift job. If they’re full time, that’s about 40 hours per week, sometimes more, which leaves one or two days off. The Ford model of the work day is supposed to be eight hours of work, eight hours of leisure, and eight hours of rest. This treats human needs as if they were easy to standardize. It takes no account for commutes, obtaining and preparing food, the amount of sleep an individual needs to function, or difference of ability as this does vary widely in the working population. Some people forfeit another one of these eight hour blocks, working two jobs to make ends meet. How much time does that leave for the necessities: nourishment and sleep? Not much. How much time does that leave for self-actualization? Barely any. So how much time does that leave to process grief specifically? Almost none. Capitalism forces us to go about our lives broken and exploited, many without the means to mend our psyches due to the high cost of mental healthcare (and healthcare in general).

Funerals with bodies are considered the standard of funerary action in the United States. Between the funeral ceremony and the embalming/preservation of the body, costs can surge to thousands of dollars just to make this arbitrary ceremony.

Now to the funeral industrial complex. Think for a minute—what would you consider a dignified burial for a loved one who left behind no death plan? Maybe cremation, maybe burial in a casket, but not much else. Cremation is the cheaper option, and embalmed casket burials are often expensive. Not only do they take into account the labor from the funeral home for a service, but also the labor of embalming (which is widely overused in the United States due to its popularity in the Civil War for the transport of the bodies of soldiers) and the price of the casket and headstone. Caskets run around $1,200, give or take, and funeral homes often mark them up to generate profit. Headstones vary widely but can run from around $65 to over $200 . This doesn’t take into account any markups from manufacturers either. Plots can run around $350 to $5,000, embalming costs upwards of $500. Add in flowers and concessions and you get an idea as to why traditional American funerals are so expensive.

So, I would like to talk about some alternatives. Firstly, there’s donating your corpse to science (which is my plan). This involves one’s body being brought to whatever scientific institution needs cadavers (medical schools mainly) for educational use, and then discarded in mass graves afterwards. There are no direct costs with this approach, but you can always hold a service for a loved one who donates their body, just without their cadaver. There’s also natural burial, either in a plain shroud or one with a seed pod. Connecticut has multiple natural burial grounds around the state. Better Place Forests prices ceremonies based on the memorial tree you want, starting at around $5,900 for the cheapest option. Depending on the grounds you choose, prices will vary, and without a tree the burial would be cheaper as well. Other options include Aquamation (which is legal for humans and pets in Connecticut, for those concerned with eco-friendliness) and feed blocks (mixing cremated remains into feed blocks for woodland animals).

So, what changes do I think need to be made?

I think that funerary and end of life care should cease to be an industry; just as medicine, infrastructure, internet, plumbing and the like should cease to be industries. A shift in governmental values from those serving the class with the highest accumulation of capital to serving the working class. A shift towards democracy centered on proletarian needs. A shift to a human collective-centered culture, rather than a profit-centered one. Replace dog-eat-dog with camaraderie. Truly place power in the hands of the people, and build a world of collaboration and healing.

Complete Article HERE!

My Dad Is Dead. His Landlord Just Evicted Him.

A jumble of complicated and unexpected logistical tasks can fall into your lap after a loved one dies.

By Stephanie H. Murray

When my father’s heart stopped, I had no choice but to keep moving. He had lived alone, and I understood that managing the logistics of his death—planning his funeral, settling his debts, divvying up his belongings—would be an enormous task. Those looming practical matters infuriated me; I hated that my world-shattering news had not, in fact, shattered the world. It kept spinning along, so I did too. I got the news on a Thursday; flew from my home in the United Kingdom to his home in Savannah, Georgia, on Saturday; and headed to his apartment with my sister on Monday to begin tying up the loose ends of his life. We didn’t have a key to his apartment, but my sister knew the building receptionist and was sure she’d let us in under the circumstances.

Instead, she turned us away. I began to panic: How would we get his suit for the funeral? How would we figure out if he had
life insurance that we could use to pay for the funeral? When would we be allowed to empty his apartment, and would I still be in the country by then?

I had never been to my father’s apartment before—I moved overseas in the fall of 2019, two months before my dad moved to Savannah and six months before the coronavirus pandemic thwarted my plans to visit family—but it hurt to be treated like a stranger there. I wanted to rifle through the artifacts of his life and sink into the happier memories their presence conjured. To sit with whatever remnants of my dad lingered among his belongings. To reclaim what little I could of the visit that COVID had denied me. And I resented the receptionist standing guard at the door to ensure that I didn’t.

I felt certain that there was some misunderstanding, but the only error was mine. Any permission I’d had to rummage through my father’s things had died with him. Successfully navigating the process, referred to as probate, for getting that permission back can be tricky and usually requires the help of a lawyer. Even then, things don’t always go as expected—which is how I ended up collecting my father’s belongings from the sidewalk when he was evicted almost three months after he died.

My circumstances felt bizarre, but it’s not unusual for a jumble of complicated and unexpected logistical tasks to fall into a person’s lap after a loved one dies. Stephanie Handel, a grief and trauma psychotherapist at the Wendt Center for Loss and Healing, in Washington, D.C., told me about pamphlets that the center used to provide recently bereaved people, detailing the enormous list of things they’d need to do in the following weeks and months: contact Social Security, find burial assistance (if they were eligible for it), publish an obituary, order death certificates, contact employers and banks, shut down social-media accounts, cancel subscriptions, handle medical paperwork, hire an attorney, pay taxes. “It’s an intellectually and psychologically challenging task. And it’s a task that you have to undertake when you’re not at your best,” R. Benyamin Cirlin, the executive director of the Center for Loss and Renewal, in New York City, told me.

What I learned after losing my father was that the laws protecting a dead person’s property are surprisingly robust. If he’s made prior arrangements, the ownership of some of his things will transfer automatically. Banks, for example, allow clients to name a “payable on death” beneficiary on some accounts. In almost all cases, practically everything else—even clothing and silverware—must go through probate before anyone can legally claim it. The fact that my father had a will that named me as his executor did not allow my sister and me to sidestep this process. “The will is just a piece of paper until the probate court has verified it,” Gerry W. Beyer, an estate attorney and a professor at Texas Tech University’s School of Law, told me.

The probate process varies by state and even by county, but it generally involves tracking down an original will and getting any “heirs-at-law”—usually the spouse and children—to acknowledge it. If all goes smoothly, probating a will might take a couple of weeks. But any hiccups—say the original will can’t be found, or a pandemic overwhelms the probate-court system—can slow the process down. And if an eligible heir contests the will, probate can take years, Gregory Matalon, an estate attorney based in New York, told me. In the meantime, the deceased person’s things are in a kind of legal limbo and, except in rare circumstances, no one’s supposed to touch them.

Of course, in many cases, people touch them anyway. Family members take what they want of their relative’s heirlooms and donate the rest. Landlords may pressure a deceased tenant’s family to clear out his apartment. When it comes to items of little personal or monetary value, jumping the gun on probate is rarely a problem, the Ohio-based attorney Joan Burda told me, but prematurely making off with cherished or expensive items can lead to legal trouble down the road. For that reason, some landlords won’t allow anyone into a deceased tenant’s apartment without court approval. Our lawyer advised us to halt my father’s rent payments in the hopes that his building would relax this requirement. If my father was evicted, our lawyer reasoned, we could take his things when his apartment was being emptied.

There are some good reasons to protect a dead person’s belongings—you wouldn’t want the wrong person walking away with their prized possessions—but the rigidity of the process can create nightmares for loved ones with good intentions. One woman I spoke with had to take nine months off work to help her elderly father manage his late wife’s estate—he was the official executor but was unable to manage the task on his own.

These logistical headaches can shape the experience of grief in a variety of ways, Cirlin told me. Sometimes, the people saddled with the practical matters sideline their emotions for a while, which can seem strange to outside observers and can be unsettling for the bereaved themselves. People can feel like “Why am I not crying right now?” Handel explained. “But there are things that need to be done, which means that your ability to be present for your own feelings in some ways needs to be halted.” For others, these responsibilities can heighten grief. Filling out paperwork or donating clothing can serve as “another window into the fact that your whole reality has changed,” as Cirlin put it. Someone may feel they’ve found their footing in the aftermath of loss only for one of these innocuous tasks to pull them back into grief. Especially when the process doesn’t go smoothly—if a loved one’s paperwork is poorly organized, for example, or probate unveils unpleasant information about them—the ugliness of these chores can complicate the fond memories and rosy narratives we want to walk away with. “It’s hard to sit with resentment when you’re missing someone,” Cirlin said.

My father’s apartment building never relented, but with the help of our attorney, we did arrange a supervised visit to search for the will and pick up my dad’s suit. (An assistant property manager for the building declined to comment on specifics of the case, but noted, “Generally we are not allowed to provide individuals who are not on the lease with access to an apartment even if they are related to the resident. We try to work with family members of a deceased resident to allow them to obtain their loved one’s belongings. Our actions were taken with direction from, and in coordination with, the family’s attorney.”)

We couldn’t find his original will, but we printed a copy from his computer and then folded the lone suit hanging in his closet into a grocery bag, along with a pair of black sneakers. My sister slipped a plastic rosary from his bedside into the pocket of his jacket, and as she glanced over her shoulder to make sure the receptionist wasn’t watching, we both began to laugh, quietly and tearfully, at the absurdity of the circumstances. If his estate had anything of value, it wasn’t in that apartment. American property law stood between us and a crusty baseball cap sitting crumpled on the counter, a poem I’d written for him on his birthday that he’d printed and tacked to the wall in his office, a hundred worn books that his excessive underlining had rendered worthless to anyone but us.

On our way out, the receptionist gingerly peeked into our bag to ensure that we hadn’t taken anything we shouldn’t have and then escorted us to our car, where she reminded us that we’d be welcome back once we had the proper documentation.

He was evicted before we got it. Mercifully, the assistant property manager let us know the date and time in advance, so we hired movers to collect my father’s things and put them in storage. But when we arrived to get his belongings off the sidewalk, some of them had been damaged. An open bottle of Drano had soaked the contents of one bag. The praying hands of a statue of Our Lady of Fátima that my parents had gotten on their honeymoon had cracked off her arms. And there was nothing I could do about it, because the laws designed to ensure that my father’s things ended up safely in my possession had exhausted their reach.

“I think, very sadly, what you’re learning is that grief is very messy,” Handel said. It’s inextricably bound up with the tedium and absurdity of human existence. It may be triggered by death, but grief is a province of the living. And life goes on.

Complete Article HERE!

What You Need to Know About Probate

By Burns & Levinson LLP

Television shows and movies show a Will being read at a funeral, as if the Will is automatically valid and assets can be distributed immediately. Unfortunately, the probate process is more complex and time intensive. This blog post will explain the five important things you need to know about probating a Will in probate court.

  1. A Will Must Be Approved by the Probate Court

There is a process governed by a statute (the Massachusetts Uniform Probate Code) directing how to file a Will with the probate court after your loved one has died. The probate court must approve the Will before a nominated personal representative can distribute any assets from an estate to any beneficiary.

  1. The Court Process Can Be Long

One of the goals of the Massachusetts Uniform Probate Court was to streamline the allowance of a Will. Now, there are three different ways to probate a Will, in order of longest to shortest length of time: formal proceedings, informal proceedings, or voluntary administration.

For instance, the formal process involves the court issuing a Citation, which includes a return day approximately four to six weeks later. During that time, notice is given to interested parties, who could file an objection to the allowance of the Will, thereby slowing down the probate process. On the other hand, the informal process requires notice to the interested parties at least seven days before filing the petition with the court, with the requirement to publish in a newspaper within 30 days after the court has allowed the Will. Also, for small estates consisting entirely of personal property (no real estate) valued at less than $25,000 (excluding the value of a car), there is the quickest option available: the voluntary administration process. There are strategic reasons why you might decide on one process over another, such as the powers available to the appointed fiduciary and the dynamics of the family, that will be discussed in another post.

  1. The Court Process Allows Disgruntled Parties to Object

One of the most important things about the court process is to ensure that the decedent’s last Will and testament is allowed for probate, such that the decedent’s intentions are carried out. This can result, however, in competing Wills being filed with the court. Prior blogs posts have explained the grounds and process to object to a Will and to probate a different Will.

  1. The Probate Process Involves Fees

There are fees associated with filing most court forms, such as any petition to allow a Will; appoint a Special Personal Representative, Personal Representative, or Successor Personal Representative; issue a Citation; and file estate accounts. The Uniform Fee Schedule is available here. In addition, the appointed Special Personal Representative or Personal Representative is entitled to receive reasonable fees for their services to the estate.

  1. The Court Process Is Public

The probate file is publicly available, both in hard copy at the courthouse and online through The only documents that are not scanned into the online docket are the death certificate and the Citation. Given the sensitive nature of the death certificate, it makes good sense to not be publicly available. If you call the court clerk, they will inform you over the phone of the “return date” listed on the Citation. Some clients are concerned about the public nature of the assets belonging to the estate that are revealed on an inventory and account. The best solution is to plan ahead to avoid probate by meeting with a skilled estate planning attorney to discuss an estate plan that fits for your assets and family.

Complete Article HERE!