When a loved one dies, planning the funeral is obviously at the top of any estate executor’s list of things to do. But who pays, and what happens if you can’t afford a funeral?

In 2014 (the most recent numbers available) the median price for a funeral was $7,181, according to the National Federation of Funeral Directors. Add in a vault, which most cemeteries require, and the price jumps to $8,508. And that doesn’t include cemetery fees, the monument or marker, flowers, the obituary, etc. Even if the decedent wanted to be cremated or other less-expensive options, you’re looking at north of $6,000 once all the bills come in. So, before you sign a contract with a funeral home, here are four things to consider.

1. Don’t sign a personal promissory note.

Rules vary from state to state, but in general the estate is legally responsible for paying funeral costs. Funeral homes are usually at or near the top of creditors who have priority over beneficiaries when it comes to getting money from the estate – so even if you think you can’t afford a funeral, know that it’s one of the first bills the estate will likely pay. It’s important to note, some states cap funeral costs so it bears looking into. Even with this preferred position, many funeral homes don’t want to wait for the estate to settle to get paid for their services.

Often beneficiaries or the executor step up to pay for the funeral out of their own pockets, expecting to be repaid once the estate settles. But there is no guarantee that there will be enough left over after the other creditors that have higher priority are paid to then cover the funeral expenses. Some funeral homes require payment up front, so if you choose to do that be sure to provide an invoice to the executor. In the event there are sufficient funds after all bills are paid, you may be eligible for reimbursement. If you sign a promissory note you could be personally liable for that bill if the estate can’t cover all of its debts.

2. Check for a pre-paid plan.

Pre-paid funeral plans were a hot commodity a few years ago for seniors who worried what would happen if their families couldn’t afford a funeral. A 2007 AARP survey found that 35% of Americans over the age of 50 had already begun planning for their own funerals or burials, and 23% of those had prepaid for at least a portion of their final expenses.

Check to see if your loved one was in that group. Go through their paperwork carefully to find out if they have already paid for this service—and to whom.

While prepayment plans can help families that can’t afford a funeral, they can also raise problems. For example, the funeral home could be in a different state if the decedent moved after signing up. Or the company may have gone out of business or mismanaged the funds, leaving the estate on the hook for the full cost of the funeral and burial.

3. Did the decedent have life insurance?

Seniors who don’t want to burden their families with funeral costs but aren’t eligible for other types of life insurance often sign up for “final expense plans.” Unlike term life insurance, these policies don’t expire after a set date. They remain in force as long as the premiums are paid.

Talk to your loved one’s insurance agent to see what, if any, life insurance policies he or she carried, and start the claims process as quickly as possible. Then talk to the funeral home. Some companies will accept assignment of that policy to them as payment for their services (with anything left over going to the estate), but many won’t wait for the insurance company to pay. They’ll want their cash up front.

4. Shop around.

Negotiating with a funeral home when you can’t afford a funeral is probably the last thing you want to do right after a loved one’s death, and funeral homes often count on that. That’s why the Federal Trade Commission instituted its Funeral Rule. This set of regulations specifies that consumers have the right to buy funeral products and services separately, such as caskets and embalming. In fact, you can buy a casket or urn from another company, and the funeral home must use it.

Funeral homes also have to give you a complete price list over the phone if you ask for it, and the company must provide you with a written breakdown of every product and service you ordered, with an itemized cost for each, before you sign a contract.

Funerals are a celebration of a loved one’s life, and it’s human nature to want to honor their memory with an elaborate service. But what happens when you can’t afford that funeral? Checking for other options, like prepaid plans or less expensive burials, can keep you from being personally liable for thousands of dollars.

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At Wayforth we work with families in transition. We can empty an entire house within days, sorting what items to keep, sell, donate, and discard. Our employees pack and move everything, then prepare the house for sale. Call us for a free consultation.

Our advice is based on our experience cleaning out and settling estates for our clients. Each project is different, and each state's laws are different. We always recommend that you consult personally with experts about your particular situation before making any important decisions.