Dying in Costa Rica

Boy!  What a title for a web page, huh? To have it under Living in Costa Rica seems really odd, but it is an important subject, both to you and to those you leave behind. 

The fact is, if you come here to live and decide to stay, (and you are over 50 or so), you probably will die here, so we need to discuss the process.  I'll also discuss the legal aspects a bit.  Actually, I'll have an attorney friend write something on wills, probate, etc.

I guess the biggest shocker to most folks who move here is that the embalming of bodies is generally not done in Costa Rica.  Not embalming a body, without getting too graphic here, means the burial clock starts ticking about 1 second after your heart stops ticking.  The clock I refer to is the nose clock.  Speed is of the essence.

When someone dies here, he or she is buried immediately... often within hours, and seldom more than 24 hours later.  In many countries, after a person passes, the body is examined,, an autopsy performed if anything looks suspicious, a death certificate is issued, and the body is sent to a mortician who prepares the body for burial, cremation, etc.  Preparing involves the use of formaldehyde so decomposition is delayed.

The relatives make their preparations, notify other family members, place an obituary in the paper saying nice things, and giving the date and time for the service, if any, and the burial, if any.  Although nobody gives this much thought, the root of this whole process is the embalming which allows for a somewhat less urgent agenda.  Remove the embalming part, and things have to move right along!

So what is the process here?  Here is a true example. 

A few years back, the grandfather of a close Tico friend passed in his sleep at about 4:30 AM.  Lucky guy!  This was discovered at about 6 AM by family members.  Relatives and close friends were called and the TV stations were notified.  TV?  Yes.  Several times each day, on Costa Rican TV stations, the shows and the ads stop, soft music begins to play, and the obituaries (not much detail) begin to scroll.  In homes, restaurants, bars...everywhere there is a TV, you will see people begin to watch the screen.  This is where all the non-immediate family learn of a death.

In this example, the grandfather's service was held at 4:00 PM the same day, and he was then taken to the cemetery and buried at about 6 PM that same day!  Incredibly, a TON of people showed up!  There is some serious networking here!

When I told my daughter, a Chicago resident, about this process, she was NOT a happy soul.  Clearly, it will be almost impossible for her to travel from the USA to Costa Rica literally within hours of my death, and while not looking forward to my death (I hope), she has expressed an interest in saying goodbye.  I understand this, but it likely won't be possible.

A note about these funerals in Costa Rica...  They are ROUGH! 

Normally (as in the USA), wives, husbands, children, close relatives and friends have a few days to compose themselves and deal with the loss.  Not here.  The loss is really fresh... just hours old... and the grieving is painful to watch.  I have had the sad experience to be at three funerals since I moved here, and all of them were emotionally wrenching even though I was not very close to any of the deceased.  This is not for show... families are very close here, and this process forces an almost immediate closure.  It is tough to watch.


What happens if you die in Costa Rica and you DO want the embalming and perhaps wish to have your remains shipped back to another country?  The good news is that it is relatively easy.  The bad news is that it is quite expensive. 

It is quite expensive.. maybe not by US standards, but very by CR standards... thousands of dollars including the casket.

The casket must be steel and is welded completely shut. Embalming is done before the sealing process... in fact embalming is a requirement I believe. Any funeral home can make arrangements to ship the remains internationally.  There are also health forms and permissions that the funeral director can handle. 

If you plan to have this done, I'd advise choosing a funeral home well before the reaper cometh, and make the arrangements.  Make sure your family (here and there) know of your intentions.

I am not going to touch on the highly personal decision that is death...but as for me?  I want my name on the TV for one last time... a few people who care to come and say adios, then plant me here in Costa Rica.

One thing you do NOT want to do is to die intestate (without a will) if you have assets in your name.  The probate procedure here is long and arduous and there are a whole group a bad guys who watch the obituaries every day then file fraudulent claims for land and other property.  A popular pastime is actually doing this in anticipation of a person's death! 

If you have acquired property while living here, it is imperative that you set up a last will and testament to protect your assets.

Here is an article originally written for the ARCR that provides some information on this topic.  It covers the legal stuff, but not the problems outlined in the above paragraph.  DO get an attorney to assist you with this!

Cremation in Costa Rica

Cremation is available here in Costa Rica, but it is expensive and may run a few thousand dollars and the urn about $2,000 or so. Expensive yes, but then you get to maybe fertilize a rose bush or something.


It is good idea for those with plans to live here to make arrangements soon after arrival, especially if both partners are not comfortable speaking the language.


Wills and Testaments in Costa Rica

By Lic. R. Pacheco
March - April 2001
Courtesy ARCR

The name for a will in Spanish is testamento and Costa Rican laws give several options for the person writing one: Open Testaments, Privileged Open Testaments, and Closed Testaments, each of which will be explained briefly.

El Testamento

I've had many inquiries about the use at a will in Costa Rica, and would like to explain how one is written and its benefits. To preface the definitions are the things you may not do.

  • You may not make a Will giving your power of attorney for someone else to write the will in your name or by the arbitration of a third party
  • You may not include secret instructions or recommendations given to a third party

False motive invocations do not invalidate the Testament, unless the motives are announced as conditions to the applicability of the Testament, or that the testator him/herself intended that the legacy or inheritance depend on the existence of the invoked clause. The expression of a motive against the law will always nullify the disposition.

Substitutions are prohibited. The disposition in which a Third is called to recollect the benefits of the said disposition if, for some reason, the first named beneficiary will not or can not accept the legacy, this does not constitute substitution, and, in this case, the disposition is valid.

The Open Testament

An open testament is one that you make without secrecy: everyone may know what your final decision is about your assets. The Open Testament is written and signed by you in front of a Notary Public in the presence of at least three witnesses: only two witnesses are required if the Testator writes the Testament in his own hand (a holographic will). If no Notary Public is present, four witnesses are necessary. Normally, you go to the Notary Public and he makes a deed with your final dispositions for your death and the distribution of assets you desire. If you want to make your will in a language different from Spanish, then in addition to the Notary Public, you will need the services of at least two translators chosen by yourself, who will translate your final dispositions into Spanish and who will dictate it for the Notary Public.

These are the basic requirements of and Open Testament

  1. It has to be dated, indicating the place, hour, day, and month and year it was written.
  2. It has to be read aloud to the witnesses by the Testator or by the person he designates or by the Notary Public. If the Testator is deaf. but can read, the Testament is read for him; if he is unable to read, he has to designate the person who will read it in his place.
  3. The completed Open Testament has to be signed by testator, the Notary Public, and all the witnesses. If the Testator does not know how to write his signature or is physically unable to sign, this information will be stated in the Open Testament. You may also distribute future assets and leave instructions for what to do with money, goods, and services that you do not yet have.

The Privileged Open Testament

The privileged open testament is created for specific situations: all the formalities are omitted because of the special circumstances and only certain people can issue these Testaments. Those who may do so are: a soldier in the Army and on campaign, or as a prisoner of war in the hands of the enemy, may write a Privileged Open Testament before two witnesses and an officer; a sailor in the Navy may do the same before two witnesses and the Captain of the ship. The Privileged Open Testament is only valid if the subject dies in the special circumstance that originated the dispensation of the normal requirements.

The Closed Testament

The closed testament stays secret until your death: nobody will know what is in it and it is kept secure until you die. You complete it personally: it comes from your own hand, or is at least signed by you.

You place it in an envelope and take it to a Notary Public. In the presence of at least three witnesses the Notary Public writes a notation in his protocolo. (The bound book given by the Costa Rican government to each Notary Public in which are described all deeds and actions that they perform) making reference to the envelope presented to him: how many pages it includes, if it was written and signed by you, if the Testament includes overwriting, alteration or notes, and noting for the Protocolo the hour and date the Testament was received, including the names of the witnesses present at that moment. The envelope is in turn; marked with the information from the Protocolo of the Notary Public and it is kept safe until the time of death of the Testator. The Closed Testament cannot be opened until the death of the Testator.

There are certain people who cannot issue a valid Testament i.e. children under 15 years of age and the mentally ill.

There is 'Relative Prohibition' of receipt for the following persons named in a Testament:

  • From a minor child to his tutor.
  • From a minor child to his teachers or caretakers.
  • From the ill person to his caretakers at the moment of his death
  • From the adulterous spouse to his lover if the adultery is judicially proven.

From the Testator to the Notary Public making the Testament.

The Testator can freely decide how to distribute his assets as long as he provides financially for each of his minor children until they reach the age of 18, and for their natural life if physically or mentally handicapped or disabled. If, at the moment of the Testators death, the children under age 18 and those children who are disabled already have enough assets, this is not applicable.



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