Who has the right to arrange your funeral?
We look at who can legally make decisions about your funeral, and what happens if there’s a dispute over the arrangements.
Who has the right to arrange your funeral depends on whether you’ve left a will. In practice, it’s likely to be your closest family members who make the decisions.
When you die, you’ll have a personal representative - someone to deal with your finances and estate, and make the arrangements for your funeral.
If you’ve made a will, your personal representative is the executor of your will
Writing a will includes giving someone the authority to make decisions on your behalf after you die. Often people name a relative or friend as their executor. But some people choose solicitors, other professionals or a bank.
When an executor is not a family member they usually hand the responsibility for arranging a funeral to the spouse or other close relatives.
If you name more than one executor, they’ll have equal say over your funeral arrangements. They’ll need to make decisions together, or one can step aside and let the other executor handle everything.
Without a will, a relative becomes your personal representative
If you die without a will, there are laws in England and Wales to decide who inherits from your estate. These laws - which are called the rules of intestacy - also establish who has the right to arrange your funeral.
A relative who’s going to inherit under the rules can become your administrator. They’re your personal representative just like an executor would be. The key difference is that executors do not have to be relatives, but administrators do.
People use the term ‘next of kin’ to describe the closest relative or relatives of the person who died. When it comes to the rules of intestacy, there’s a specific order in which your relatives can take responsibility:
Spouse or civil partner
Nieces and nephews
Aunts or uncles
Do intestacy rules mean you do not have to make a will?
No. Making a will is the best way to make sure you have a say on what happens to your estate. The rules of intestacy are there as a safety net to decide what happens to your estate if you die ‘intestate’ - which means without a will.
Since the rules are around 100 years old, they do not take into account more modern family dynamics such as non-married partners and step-children. This means that if you’re not married to your partner or in a civil partnership with them when you die, they will have no legal right to organise your funeral.
Relatives may disagree about how to give you the best possible send-off
Sometimes relatives have different views about what’s best, for example whether to have a burial or a cremation. In these situations people may have strong feelings and it can be difficult to know who gets the final say.
If family members cannot agree, personal representatives are ultimately in charge of making decisions. If the personal representative does not agree with something the family requests for the funeral, it’s their right to overrule the family and to go ahead with what they believe is best.
How to arrange a funeral
Not sure where to start? From choosing a burial or cremation to working out costs and deciding where to have it, read our complete guide on how to arrange a funeral.
There have been cases when families have taken legal action against a personal representative
For example, seeking an injunction to block the executor from arranging a cremation against the family’s wishes.
In cases like this, a court will consider all aspects including the wishes of the family, in order to settle the dispute, but it’s not easy to make a case against an executor. Generally the court will favour the executor’s view.
Solicitors advise trying to settle disputes over funerals out of court if families possibly can. Taking legal action is expensive and can be a stressful thing to go through when you’re grieving. It may be best to think of it as a last resort if communication breaks down completely.
Setting out your wishes before you die may help avoid disputes
Giving your family an idea of your funeral wishes before you die may make things easier for them when the time comes.
Some people like to plan their own funerals in advance, and pre-paid funeral plans can help with this. As well as covering the costs ahead of time, these plans sometimes let you decide funeral arrangements or choose a particular funeral director.
Even if you don’t plan and pay for everything beforehand, you can let your family know what you’d like.
One way to do this is to include your wishes in your will. There are a couple of things to bear in mind if you’re considering doing this:
Your family may not have access to your will quickly enough
They may already be well into planning the details of your funeral before they get to see your wishes. Telling them you’re going to add your funeral wishes to your will may help, so they know to ask for it as soon as possible. But bear in mind there’s still a risk they will not get hold of it early enough for funeral planning.
Funeral wishes in a will are not legally binding
The people organising your funeral do not legally have to follow any preferences you express in your will - unlike the rest of your will, which is legally binding. But, anything you include may be a good starting point for your relatives when they’re making arrangements, and help avoid or settle any arguments.
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Another option is to write a letter of instruction
This can be a simple document that you keep in a safe place where your family knows to find it. As with funeral wishes in a will, this is not legally binding. But, it can be a good way to give your family a clear plan or some suggestions to follow. This may help them make decisions when they’re emotional.
Whether including them in your will, or writing a separate letter of instruction, some of the things you might want to consider noting down are:
the type of coffin you’d prefer
where to bury your body or place your ashes
a venue for the funeral and wake
who you’d like to give a eulogy
readings, music, art or photography for the service
Keeping communication open can help families avoid disputes
The days and weeks after a death are an emotional time. It can be in everyone’s best interests to keep communication open between all close relatives and personal representatives, and to hear everyone’s views and ideas without judgement.
This may help avoid disputes and keep the focus on giving the person who’s died a fitting send-off.
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