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Who Has the Legal Authority to Make Funeral Arrangements?

When someone dies, who has the legal authority to make the funeral arrangements?

It might seem like a simple question, but when families are trying to make arrangements during the stressful time immediately following a death it can get complicated.  And if the family doesn’t live nearby, it can become even more convoluted. This question is one that almost every family will need to consider.

At Tharp Funeral Home & Crematory we always serve our families to the best of our abilities, and within the guidelines of Virginia law.  To help our client families understand their options we will outline Virginia’s law on this topic in plain terms.

Did the deceased designate someone to make decisions about funeral arrangements?

A person may choose to designate a specific person to make decisions regarding the disposition of their body. This is done for a variety of reasons, but is especially prudent in a situation where the family doesn’t agree on religious or cultural beliefs.  By designating a specific person to handle the arrangements, the deceased can make sure that their beliefs and wishes are honored.

This person can be designated in a notarized legal document–often in an advance directive or a Will. According to VA Law, this designation takes priority over any other next-of-kin who typically have a legal right to make the arrangements.  By assigning one person to be in charge of funeral arrangements, you can avoid many potential conflicts in cases where family members would not be able to easily agree on the service plan.  We have blank copies of this designee form here at Tharp Funeral Home & Crematory available free of charge.  If you would like one, simply contact us and we will email you a copy.

Next-of-Kin and Blood-Related Family Members

If the deceased did not legally designate someone to make decisions regarding their funeral arrangements, it falls to the next-of-kin; which is the closest blood-related family member (or spouse). Virginia Law states that funeral homes only need one blood-related family member to be present while making arrangements. Once that family member steps up and takes responsibility for both making and paying for the funeral arrangements, they sign a legal contract which obligates the funeral home to follow the instructions of that family member alone.  As you might imagine, this can cause a great deal of tension in a family, especially when some of the family members feel left out or disagree with the arrangements being made.  It’s important to remember that the funeral home is legally bound to the contract made with the family member that took initial responsibility making and paying for the arrangements.

What happens when there is no one to make arrangements?

In cases where there is no surviving blood relative and no one has been designated by the deceased to handle the funeral arrangements, VA Law states that, “Any person 18 years of age or older who is able to provide positive identification of the deceased and is willing to pay for the costs associated with the disposition of the decedent’s remains shall be authorized to make arrangements for such disposition of the decedent’s remains.”

What this means for Pre-planning

Most of the disagreements between family members when planning funeral arrangements come from the sincere desire of each family member to honor their loved one’s life. The tension comes because each surviving family member has their own idea of exactly what that tribute should be. When they are dealing with the grief of their loss, it becomes much harder to manage these disagreements. This is one reason why pre-planning is so important for families. By pre-planning, you can designate one person to make these decisions, and you are also able to leave behind specific instructions as to your wishes regarding the arrangements. That way, your loved ones know exactly what you wanted done and how to honor you.  By completing your funeral prearrangement you will illustrate to all family members what you wanted done and then much of the tension (and potential family conflicts) will be avoided.

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