A Different Type of Funeral

Q.I am the kind of person who likes to plan ahead for everything. I started planning my wedding before I was even engaged, and named my children long before I was pregnant. Now that I am getting older, I am beginning to think about my funeral.

I was baptized and raised Catholic, and I married an agnostic man. I became agnostic, and we raised our children that way. I have been to funerals at churches, synagogues, and mosques, and don’t want a religious funeral. I see funerals as a way to celebrate life, and I would hate for my friends and family to wear all black, attend a religious service (since I don’t have religious affiliation), and mourn too much over me. I would like my funeral to be a party, with my favorite music playing, and my favorite food being served. How do I make my wishes known to my family? Also, is there a way to plan ahead and even prepay for it and, if so, will that affect Medicaid eligibility? Thanks in advance for your help!

A. Many people – non-religious and religious – want to make advance plans for their own funeral or memorial ceremony. And why not? If you’ve left clear instructions, you can be confident that you will get the funeral you desire, and it also takes a great deal of pressure off friends and family at a stressful time.

Non-religious funerals and memorial services offer a personal and fitting way to say goodbye to those who have not been involved in organized religion. They bring people together to express sadness of those left behind, but also to celebrate the life lived. Non-religious funerals focus on the person who has died, paying tribute to the connections they made and left behind, and the way they lived their life.

An increasing number of people coming towards the end of their life want to work with a celebrant themselves to plan their own funeral. In fact, the use of funeral celebrants is growing. Why? According to a 2015 study by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life, 56 million Americans have “no religious affiliation,” making these people the second largest group after evangelicals. Americans who choose “none” as their religious affiliation have few rituals to guide them when a death occurs, and most don’t want a religious funeral or memorial service when they die.

The Celebrant Movement

The civil celebrant movement started in Australia in 1973, when the Anglican and Roman Catholic Church liturgy wasn’t working for the general population, especially those who were divorced. The government started licensing celebrants, or non-clerics who could perform weddings and funerals outside of a religious ceremony. The movement recognized that non-religious and secular people have a place of equal respect in society. Celebrants have gained popularity in Europe and the US.

What do Celebrants do?

Celebrants provide completely personalized memorial services that are designed to reflect the personality and lifestyle of the deceased. They are trained to construct a meaningful, memorable goodbye for all kinds of situations. A good celebrant incorporates unique stories, songs, and experiences that defined the deceased person, and creates a theme for the memorial service.

The celebrant typically writes a unique ceremony that’s fitting for the person who has died and the circumstances. If planning ahead, the celebrant can meet with you to discuss you wishes and desires for your funeral. If you desire, he or she can meet with your family, listen to their stories about you, discuss what was important to you, and learn the impacts you made in life.

Prepaid Funerals and Medicaid

Medicaid itself does not pay for funerals, but it does have rules that allow you to set aside money for your own funeral, burial, or cremation without having that money “count” as part of your assets when Medicaid determines your eligibility for long-term care coverage. Medicaid Regulations permit the ownership of prepaid funeral arrangements if funded totally by an irrevocably-assigned life insurance policy and/or by an irrevocable trust that is properly established by a funeral home.  The amount of money you spend on properly-established prepaid funeral arrangements will be an exempt asset in connection with Medicaid.  Medicaid regulations permit the Medicaid applicant to purchase prepaid funeral plans not only for the Medicaid applicant but also for his spouse (and his or her children, if desired), but again it is critical that these pre-paid arrangements are set up properly using either an irrevocable life insurance policy, a special type of irrevocable trust, or both.

There is no limit on the amount of money that can be spent on properly-established Medicaid-exempt prepaid funeral arrangements, but in reality, prepaid burial arrangements typically cost between $8,000 and $12,000 per person.  Prepaid cremation arrangements typically cost between $3,000 and $5,000 per person. When the proper funding vehicles are used to prepay a funeral, the value of the prearranged funeral contract and the funding vehicle are excluded as a countable resource in determining SSI & Medicaid eligibility.

Prepaying for a funeral has many benefits, including locking in prices, relieving the burden of family members during a time of emotional stress, and ensuring that your personal desires are carried out according to your wishes. Additionally, purchasing prepaid funeral arrangements is just one of dozens of different Medicaid Asset Protection strategies that someone applying for Medicaid can use to legally and ethically protect assets from having to be spent down in connection with nursing home care. With proper planning, families can protect most or all of their assets and obtain Medicaid assistance without having to deplete their life savings. Always contact an experienced Elder Law Attorney, such as myself, before you make any prepaid funeral arrangements or take any other steps towards filing for Medicaid. Medicaid is the most complex area of law in existence, and one mistake can have tragic consequences for you or your loved one. Our firm serves clients throughout Virginia, Maryland, and DC, and would be happy to assist you.

To find out more about prepaid funerals, read the Prepaid Funeral FAQs on the Farr Law Firm website. In addition, visit the website for more information about Medicaid Asset Protection.

Indicating your wishes in your estate planning documents

Even if you already planned and paid for your funeral, it is important that you indicate your wishes and the details in an Advance Medical Directive for your loved ones to access.

Our proprietary 4-Needs Advance Medical Directive(TM) enables you to set forth your preferences with regard to organ donation, funeral arrangements, and disposition of remains. The document also accomplishes several essential things. In your 4-Needs Advance Medical Directive(TM), you can appoint an agent and give that person the power to consent to medical and health care decisions on your behalf. This person can decide whether to withhold or withdraw a specific medical treatment or course of treatment when you are incapable of making or communicating an informed decision yourself. Our 4-Needs Advance Medical Directive(TM) also contains a proprietary Long-Term Care Directive(TM) that allows you to address numerous issues that arise if and when long-term care is needed.  You can also indicate your wishes concerning the use of artificial or extraordinary measures to prolong your life in the event of a terminal illness or injury.

If you have not done Incapacity Planning (including our 4-Needs Advance Medical Directive(TM) and Financial Power of Attorney), Estate Planning, or Long-Term Care Planning, now is the time to do so. To begin your Estate Planning or to update your existing documents, please contact us to set up an appointment for a no-cost consultation:

Fairfax Estate Planning: 703-691-1888
Fredericksburg Estate Planning: 540-479-1435
Rockville Estate Planning: 301-519-8041
DC Estate Planning: 202-587-2797

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