How to avoid falling out when arranging a loved one's funeral - Sarah Coles

It’s going to be a sombre day for many today: dominated by the funeral of Prince Philip, three minutes of silence and the quiet grief of the Royal Family. The service will reflect love and respect for a husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather, because at their best, funerals symbolise everything you are, and everything you leave behind.

Funerals can be a source of rancour among families.

But sometimes even the most well-lived lives aren’t marked by the kinds of funerals people deserve. There can be fallings out over the funeral itself, where family members disagree over what their loved one would have wanted. Usually this creates a bit of tension and some strong words, but things can get out of hand.

One of the most extreme cases was in 2015, when a mother’s body spent three years in storage while her children went to court to argue over the kind of service she should have.

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Our research shows that more than one in ten people leave written instructions for exactly the kind of funeral they want, from the service to the music and final resting place of the coffin or ashes. This is an incredibly sensible idea. Laying out your plans not only puts paid to funeral-related arguments, but it avoids the stress of not knowing the right thing to do. Uncertainty can be alarmingly expensive if you feel duty-bound to pay for the best of everything, just in case that’s what they wanted.

Your instructions should also include details of how the funeral should be paid for. The average funeral costs just over £9,000 and even a basic funeral costs more than £4,000, so this is worth considering carefully.

There are a number of options. Some people will arrange with a funeral director to pay for their funeral in advance; some set aside money in a savings account for funeral costs; and others let their family know it will be covered by other plans, such as life insurance written in trust or workplace death in service cover. You can buy pre-paid funeral plans, which offer some peace of mind, but the industry has been marred by overcharging and the sale of some products that don’t end up covering the costs at all.

The FCA will regulate the market from July 2022, but you still need to be very clear about where your money is going, and what you can expect to receive in the end.

Disagreements don’t just arise over the service itself. Funerals can also be the time when ongoing family tensions come to the boil. Even during the pandemic, when funerals have been incredibly restricted, and wakes have been forbidden altogether, there have still been fights serious enough to end in hospitalisation and headlines. And while there are all sorts of reasons why families fall out, one of the biggest issues at this point is inheritance.

One key step to prevent arguments over money is to make a will. This will give you control over how you divide your estate, so that the right people benefit. If you don’t draw a will up, it will be left according to strict rules which won’t take your family dynamic into consideration. Only around a third of people say their parents have a will, which opens up all kinds of potential dramas.

Unfortunately, even a will can’t stop some arguments. Figures out last year show that the number of families that fall out over a will, and end up in court, hit an all-time high in 2019 (the most recent year we have figures for). This has been put down partly to rising house prices, which means families feel there’s more to fight over.

But it’s also because families are more complicated than ever. More people marry more than once, and have complex extended family relationships, so there’s less of a clear path for how money passes.

It means we all need to take steps to avoid potential conflict among our loved ones after we’ve gone. The most important is often the hardest, and involves talking to your family well in advance about your wishes. That way, even if they’re not delighted by the outcome, they won’t be set for a nasty surprise at the worst possible time.

If you know there will be issues, even if everyone knows where they stand well in advance, it’s worth considering appointing a professional executor. This comes at a cost, but it smooths the process and ensures your wishes will be carried out, regardless of everything else going on.