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Complete end-of-life planning guide
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End-of-life planning is one of the most consequential decisions you can make for your loved ones. Conversations about death and the afterlife are hard, which is why many people choose not to have them. However, not discussing your end-of-life plans can unintentionally leave family members and loved ones with burdensome tasks when you pass away. 

So where does one start? This end-of-life planning guide will help navigate you through the process. 

What’s end-of-life planning?

End-of-life planning is the process of making decisions about what you want to have happen when you die. It can be challenging to express your wishes during the latter stages of your life, which is a natural response to facing your own mortality. Intentionally planning, however, can be a loving act. Making end-of-life plans proactively helps ensure that your family knows how to best proceed according to your wishes when you pass. 

End-of-life planning includes things like:

  • Funeral and disposition arrangements 
  • Planning for periods when you aren’t able to make decisions for yourself
  • Making decisions about who should receive your property

End-of-life planning isn’t easy, but the burden it removes from your loved ones makes it worth it. In a way, making end-of-life plans is a final gift that you can give to your family and friends.

Where to begin?

You’re already taking the first and arguably most important step — planning ahead. A lot can change from your initial plan to when you pass away, and that’s okay. Just having a framework in place will make any changes more manageable. 

It’s also worth remembering that all of these steps don’t need to be done in one day. Try setting goals for yourself to work on these tasks incrementally, and find ways to reward yourself as you make progress. End-of-life planning shouldn’t be finished in a day. Take the appropriate amount of time to carefully think through your choices and the legacy you want to leave. 

Let’s get started.

Planning checklist

We’ve created an end-of-life planning checklist to help keep you organized. Although you don’t have to do these steps in the exact order, you may find that following the steps as they are can make each subsequent step easier. 

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Below, you will find more detailed steps for your end-of-life planning.

Assets

Before you visit with an estate planning attorney, it’s helpful to make a complete list of your accounts and assets. You don’t have to list everything, but you will want to list assets that have a high monetary value or those that may hold significant sentimental value to your family and friends. 

Some of the most common assets people list to plan for end of life are:

  • Savings and checking accounts
  • Cash holdings and deposits (CD)
  • Pensions or retirement plans (e.g., 401K)
  • Stocks or bonds
  • Money or loans owed to you
  • Life insurance policies
  • Business ventures
  • Real estate property
  • Art and/or collectibles
  • Jewelry
  • Automobiles
  • Family heirlooms

If you’d like particular pieces of property to go to a special family member or friend, make a note of it — your estate planning attorney can help you document that in a way that will be legally enforceable.

End-of-life documents

This step of your end-of-life planning can often feel the most overwhelming. Your first question may be what documents you need to organize before you die. Preparing these documents is an important step and can help guide the rest of your planning. 

Below are examples of some of the documents most commonly used for end-of-life planning. You may not need all of these. Your estate planning attorney can help you with your specific needs.

  • Letter of intent: A letter of intent allows you to express your end-of-life plans to your loved ones and beneficiaries. This letter can list your reasonings in the directives of your will or trust, as well as your funeral preferences, care for your pets, designation of personal belongings such as photo albums, location of legal documents, and other information like passwords for online accounts. Although a letter of intent isn’t a legally binding document, it can help alleviate any confusion your friends and family may have reading formal legal documents.
  • Property distribution: The law gives you great discretion in terms of determining who should receive your property when you die, but it also requires that you document your wishes in a particular way. For most people, a will is all you need. If you own a business or have complicated assets or other particular needs, your estate planning attorney may recommend one or more trusts in addition to or instead of a will. We will go over the differences between a will and a trust in the next section.
  • Power of attorney (POA): Power of Attorney documents can vary in their scope and authority. In short, this document appoints or designates someone to make legal, financial, or medical decisions for you when you are no longer able to do so. There are typically separate POAs for your healthcare decisions and your finances. These documents grant the designated individual a lot of decision-making authority. It’s important to carefully choose one or more people to hold your power of attorney — you’ll want to pick someone you trust and who understands what’s important to you. 
  • Organ donor card/designation: This document designates any donations of tissue or organs upon your death. You can also register to donate your organs in advance. Many forms allow you to decide whether you want your organs donated or used for medical studies and research. You can also opt not to donate any part of your body upon your passing. 
  • Domestic partnership agreement: This is often used for couples who aren’t married but share a life together. This agreement declares the rights and responsibilities of the living partner. In some states, like California, the rights of domestic partners have been broadened. Be sure to check the rights of domestic partnerships in the state where you currently live.

Property distribution

What happens to the property you own when you die? There are three basic ways that property can be transferred to others: intestacy, a will, or non-probate transfers.

What’s intestacy?

If you own property at the time of your death and you don’t leave a will, your property will pass through the laws of intestate succession. These laws differ a bit from state to state, but the general rules are the same. If you leave a surviving spouse, then they will typically get all or most of your property. Some states split your property between a surviving spouse and children or grandchildren. If you don’t leave a surviving spouse or children and grandchildren, then typically your parents will inherit from you. The rules can get pretty complicated depending upon your family situation, but the bottom line is — if you die without a will, you don’t get to choose who gets your property. The laws of intestate succession decide, and they don’t take family dynamics into account. The laws of intestate succession won’t give any of your property to a friend, no matter how close. So if you want to make sure your cousin gets a special family heirloom, or your best friend gets that piece of jewelry she’s always admired, you’ll want to leave a will.

What’s a will?

A will is just a document that states your wishes with respect to the distribution of your property. A will can be really straightforward, for example, you could leave everything to your surviving spouse. Or you could leave a hundred different specific gifts and money to family members, friends, and charities. Your will is an expression of your wishes, so it can be as simple or as complicated as you’d like it to be.

You can change your will as many times as you’d like before you die, so as your life and family circumstances change, you should consider updating your will.

The best practice for writing a will is to work with an estate planning attorney. Estate planning attorneys know the law for your state and have developed streamlined processes for helping people with all end-of-life planning, including writing a will. They can typically help you document your wishes in a way that reduces confusion and expense for your family and friends who survive you. People with complicated situations (for example, children from a previous marriage, ownership of a family business, or one or more family members with special needs), will definitely want to consult an estate planning attorney. 

What are non-probate transfers?

The third method of transferring property at your death is through non-probate transfers. This category includes a couple of very different things:

  • jointly owned property
  • payable on death provisions or beneficiary designations
  • trusts

Most married people own their home jointly with their spouse (either in something called “tenancy by the entirety” or “joint tenancy with rights of survivorship”). Check your deed, and if those words appear, that means that upon the death of one spouse, the other spouse automatically inherits the entire house. Many married people also own a checking and/or savings account jointly with their spouse. The same principle applies here — upon the death of one of the owners, the other owner automatically takes ownership of the entire account.

Many of our largest assets these days (other than our home) are in pension funds, retirement accounts, mutual funds, stock portfolios, and life insurance policies. All of these contracts required you to designate a beneficiary when you signed up. While you’re making your list of assets, it’s a good idea to check with the companies and make sure that the beneficiary you designated is still the one you want. When you die, the proceeds of those accounts and policies will be paid directly to the beneficiaries you indicated. They won’t pass through the will unless you made them the beneficiary of your estate.

The last category of non-probate transfers is trusts. There are a lot of different kinds of trusts. If you create a trust during your lifetime it’s called a living trust. If you create it in your will it’s called a testamentary trust. All living trusts are revocable unless it’s made irrevocable by the terms of the trust. There are some special reasons that you might want to make a trust irrevocable — your estate planning attorney can help you determine if they apply to your situation. Trusts can be a great tool in your estate planning, and some people use them in combination with other non-probate transfers to avoid the probate process entirely. But a trust is definitely not something you can create on your own — you’ll need an attorney’s help to set one up.

The probate process

If you own property at your death, whether you leave a will or not, your property will have to pass through the probate process. In some states, this can be a lengthy and expensive process, although most states have a quicker procedure for smaller estates, or where the primary beneficiary is the surviving spouse. A person called a personal representative will be appointed and, with the oversight of a court, will do the following:

  • Determine what property you owned at the time of your death
  • Determine what creditors, if any, you had
  • If you left a will, identify your beneficiaries; if you died without a will, identify your family members and heirs
  • After paying off debts, the personal representative will distribute the remaining property to heirs and beneficiaries

Family members are always free to contest your will or your trust, so make sure everybody knows your wishes, and document them in full compliance with the law. 

End-of-life housing

You may be at a point where you need to start thinking about your end-of-life housing. If you have specific health requirements, your housing may be more than where you currently live. It can be difficult, but you should consider what type of facility can best ease the burden on your family as you approach your end of life. Some of the most common end-of-life housings options are:

  • Assisted living facilities: Generally, this type of housing provides personal care in a social setting. Assisted living is a good option if you don’t have any serious medical conditions, enjoy spending time with others like yourself, and value your independence. If you need medical attention, the assisted living facility will transfer you to a hospital or clinic. In most cases, the costs of an assisted living facility isn’t covered by your medical insurance. This means you’ll most likely have to pay the full cost out of pocket.
  • Nursing facility: This type of housing provides personal and medical care in a clinical setting. A nursing facility can be a good choice if you have serious disabilities or need constant medical care as you approach your end of life. While some nursing facilities can be covered by Medicare or health insurance, typically, your beneficiaries must pay for this out of pocket, or show that they don’t have the means to pay for a nursing facility without a huge financial burden.
  • In-home care: This type of housing is just what it sounds like. Typically, you will have a healthcare provider help you with personal care and daily tasks. If you require medications or medical care, you can hire a registered nurse to administer these. For many, spending their last days at home is worth the expense and assistance of at-home care.

Decide what type of housing will best work with your current or future health issues, as well as the associated costs. And most importantly, choose an accommodation that will make you the most comfortable during your last stage of life. 

Funeral arrangements

The decisions you make about what will happen to your body after death are often called disposition arrangements. Although sometimes difficult to imagine, having these arrangements planned ahead of time will allow your family and friends to properly grieve when you’re gone. 

In the past, a traditional burial seemed like the only choice. However, today, there are several ways that you can decide how your body is treated when you pass. Some of the most common types of dispositions are:

  • Cremation: The cremation process transforms a body back to its essential elements through heat. Afterward, remains may be kept in an urn, turned into a piece of art, or scattered at the base of a tree in a memorial forest. Many people choose cremation because it allows easier transportation of their remains and it’s considered a greener end-of-life option. 
  • In-ground: The body, typically embalmed, is placed in a casket and lowered into the ground. A plaque or a headstone marks the burial.
  • Above ground: In above-ground burials, the body or ashes are housed in a mausoleum, a building used for interment. Mausoleums are also popular choices for couples or family members that wish to be buried together.
  • Natural burial: This is becoming an increasingly popular choice in recent years because it’s seen as a green option since it doesn’t use any embalming chemicals, a casket, or a vault. This type of burial allows the body to decompose naturally into the earth. 
  • Natural organic reduction: This is similar to the composting you’d do for your garden, but in the case of human composting a body is broken down and becomes nutrient-rich soil that can be used to grow new organic life. 

Additionally, you can also plan the kind of funeral you would like to have. When planning for your funeral, consider whether you want:

  • Full funeral service: These are often called traditional services and usually occur in a church or funeral home.  
  • Viewing: Many people like to pay their last respects to a person’s body after their death. For some, viewing their loved ones for the last time may bring them closure. Viewings take place with an open casket with set times for visitations.
  • Ash scattering: The scattering of ashes can occur at a particular spot or several places that are special to you, such as a forest, the ocean, or family property. Be sure to check regulations in your area before scattering ashes on any public land or water. 
  • Celebration of life: This type of service allows your loved ones to pay tribute to your life. Celebration of life services are common for children or for those that don’t have strong religious beliefs. They are typically informal and focus more on your life versus your passing.
  • Wake: A wake occurs before a formal service and is typically held at the deceased's home. Wakes have a long history in European cultures, but today they’ve become more common in non-secular end-of-life celebrations.  
  • Memorial service: This can be any organized service that happens after a burial or cremation. A memorial service can have a religious component, or it can just be a way for your loved ones to gather and celebrate your life.
  • Graveside service: This service usually occurs after a traditional funeral and often includes prayers, flowers, and loved ones symbolically burying the deceased.
  • Living funeral: For those who want to be part of their funeral service before they pass. A living funeral allows loved ones and the soon-to-be departed to share this occasion and reflect on a life well-lived. 

Although it can be difficult, it’s important for you to go over your end-of-life options with your loved ones. Creating your burial and funeral arrangements in advance will help your loved ones honor your beliefs and values. 

Obituary

While not as important as the other end-of-life planning documents, your obituary can help you decide how you’d like to be remembered outside your immediate family and friends. Some people have a friend or family member write their obituary after they’ve passed. However, writing one ahead of time can help guide your loved ones during this stressful time. 

When writing your obituary, think about what you’d like people to remember about you. It could be professional accomplishments or personal ones that you are proud of, like volunteer work, travel, or educational milestones. It can also give you a chance to say goodbye in your own words.

Keep your obituary organized with all of your other end-of-life documents. This will allow whoever is in charge of your estate to access the necessary documents when you pass.

Leave a lasting legacy

While you can't physically be with your loved ones once you die, your memory will stay with them throughout their lives. There will be times when your friends and family think of you and how you would have comforted them, laughed with them, or advised them through difficult times. This reality adds significance to your end-of-life plans — when you plan, you allow your loved ones to focus on the loss they are feeling rather than the logistics and details of your funeral. 

For many, end-of-life planning isn’t about what happens when you die but long after you’re gone. Documenting and detailing your end-of-life plans is one of the greatest gifts you can give to your loved ones before you pass. Whichever way you decide to leave your legacy, be sure it’s meaningful for you and the people you love. 


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