Understanding Final Arrangements After a Loved One Passes Away

Understanding Final Arrangements


A Guide for Families

Losing a loved one is undoubtedly one of the most challenging experiences in life. With the grief and emotions that follow, there are practical matters that must be addressed. These include decisions regarding the deceased’s final wishes. But who holds the right to make these decisions? How do families navigate this delicate terrain, ensuring that their loved one’s wishes are honored while respecting legal obligations and familial dynamics?


In this blog post, we’ll explore the hierarchy of decision-making after a person passes away, shedding light on the rights and responsibilities of the various parties involved.


“When families understand who has responsibility in making these decisions, it makes the next steps clearer, minimizes family conflicts, and fosters a sense of closure and peace for all. They can then focus on creating a tribute that truly captures the essence of the individual they are honoring.”
– Tiffany Gallarzo, Operations Manager at the Mortuary at Green Hills


The Hierarchy of Rights to Control Disposition

Controlling disposition means making a decision to determine the final arrangements when a death has occurred, whether through cremation, traditional burial, or other means. There is a hierarchy of who has the legal right to make this decision. First, the person can choose for themselves prior to death. They can make a contract with a funeral home and/or mortuary to detail what their disposition choice is, where they wish for their final resting place to be and take care of financial payments. This allows a person to have control of their own final plans and forms a legal contract. Planning a service is a part of this, from flowers to music, and who speaks.


Following this, the right lies with the specified agent appointed in a durable power of attorney for healthcare, then to the deceased person’s spouse or domestic partner. If those options are not present, a hierarchy of family members in consanguinity, or family lineage, is followed:


Understanding Final Arrangements


1. Self: The Deceased’s Preplanned Wishes

First and foremost, the person who has passed away retains control over their final wishes if they took the proactive step of formally documenting the wishes. Preplanning, also referred to as Advance Planning, involves planning preferences for funeral arrangements. This includes choices such as burial or cremation, final resting places, and other specific requests related to end-of-life arrangements. These instructions serve as a guide for family members and eliminate guesswork during a time of heightened emotion. 


Unless there is a statement to the contrary that is signed and dated by the decedent, the advance plan may not be altered in any material way and shall be fulfilled as long as the wishes are specifically written and paid for in advance.


If your loved one had the foresight to preplan, it’s essential to consult their preplanning documents to ensure their wishes are honored. This not only respects their autonomy but also provides a sense of comfort in knowing that you are carrying out their desires.


2. Durable Power of Attorney for Healthcare:

In cases where the deceased did not preplan, the responsibility falls on the individual designated as their agent in a durable power of attorney for healthcare. This designation grants someone the authority to make healthcare decisions on behalf of the person, which in the state of California includes the right to control disposition, which would include choices on burial and cremation.


3. Spouse or Domestic Partner:

In the absence of a preplanned directive or an agent under a durable power of attorney for healthcare, the responsibility typically passes to the surviving spouse or domestic partner. Spouses and domestic partners are often considered the closest next of kin. They are entrusted with making decisions regarding funeral arrangements, burial or cremation, and other pertinent matters. Domestic partners must be registered with the California Secretary of State.


4. Surviving Adult Competent Children:

If there is no surviving spouse or if the spouse is unavailable or unable to fulfill their responsibilities, the authority would then pass to the deceased’s children who are of legal age. In some cases, decisions may be made collaboratively among family members, taking into account the preferences and input of each individual.


Family members need to communicate openly and respectfully during this process, recognizing that emotions may run high, and differing opinions may arise. While consensus is ideal, the primary goal should always be to honor the wishes of the deceased to the best of everyone’s ability.


It is important to note that all the deceased children who are competent adults have an equal voice at this stage. While some cultures assume that the oldest child, or the child who has cared for them has more influence, they do not. All competent adult children, whether involved or estranged, have an equal voice in final decisions such as burial or cremation. The only caveat is when an adult child cannot be found, or has been declared incompetent in a court of law.


5. From Parents to Great-Grandparents:

The chart above goes through the rights of family members, in order, of who may legally make disposition decisions. On the chart, the term “continue in consanguinity” refers to the relationships based on their bloodline. If a situation goes beyond great-grandparents, great-aunts or great-uncles, this can come into play. If a situation goes beyond great-grandparents, great-aunts or great-uncles, the rights continue in consanguinity according to the chart above.


6. Legal Obligations and Considerations:

Throughout this decision-making process, it’s essential to remain mindful of any legal obligations and requirements governing end-of-life arrangements. Certain jurisdictions may have specific regulations regarding burial, cremation, and other funeral practices, which must be adhered to accordingly.

Competency of adults in the above hierarchy is important to include. According to California, Health and Safety Code – HSC § 7100  law:

  • All persons must be competent.  And, except for spouses and parents, all persons must be at least 18 years of age.  Domestic partners must be registered with the California Secretary of State.


Keeping the Peace

When a loved one passes, emotions can run high. There can be many choices that need to be made, creating both an emotional and stressful situation. Taking time to listen to all parties here is crucial.

This is one of the most important times that Advance Planning can remove substantial stress on a family. The person, themselves before passing, has spelled out their specific wishes. This eliminates debates and questions, and removes the financial burden from the loved ones who are left behind. Advance planning is considered a legal contract with the mortuary or funeral home. It ensures that the wishes of the deceased are carried out as they wanted.


Learn More About Advance Planning.


What Happens When There Is No One to Make Final Arrangements?

In a case where there is no surviving blood relative and no one has been designated by the deceased, laws vary by state. In the state of California, the public administrator would be notified and they would determine who holds the legal right to control the disposition.



In conclusion, navigating all the decisions after a loved one passes away can be overwhelming.  Understanding the hierarchy of decision-making can help families navigate this process with greater clarity. Having Advance Planning in place provides a legal contract that guarantees that your wishes are carried out. It also removes the financial and emotional stress that follows.

The ultimate goal is to ensure that the final wishes of the deceased is honored with dignity and respect. If you’re currently facing these decisions, remember that you’re not alone. Seek support from loved ones, professionals, and resources available in your community. They will guide you through this journey of honoring your loved one’s legacy. Green Hills LA has a compassionate, experienced team who can guide you through this time.


Additional Resources Available


About Green Hills

We believe that every end-of-life celebration is as unique as the person being celebrated. We’ll help you create a memorial that honors your loved one in a way that feels special and authentic. If you’re planning for the future, our Advance Planning advisors will help you remove the burden from your family members and organize a ceremony that allows them to gather, heal, and reminisce.


To learn more about how advanced funeral planning can protect your loved ones, find out what to do if a loved one is ill, or just say hello, contact our team today. Celebrate a life well-lived in a beautiful, serene environment. www.greenhillsla.com