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Medicaid: Funerals, A Consumer Guide

EXCERPTED FROM FEDERAL TRADE COMMISSION - FACTS FOR CONSUMERS

When a loved one dies, grieving family members and friends often are confronted with dozens of decisions about the funeral - all of which must be made quickly and often under great emotional duress. What kind of funeral should it be? What other arrangements should you plan? And, as callous as it may sound, how much is it all going to cost?

Each year, Americans grapple with these and may other questions as they spend billions of dollars arranging more than 2 million funerals for family members and friends. The increasing trend toward pre-need planning - when people make funeral arrangements in advance - so that ultimately, the funeral reflects a wise and well-informed purchasing decision, as well as a meaningful one.

A Consumer Product

Funerals rank among the most expensive purchases many consumers will ever make. A traditional funeral, including a casket and vault, cost about $6,000, although “extras” like flowers, obituary notices, acknowledgment cards or limousines can add thousands of dollars to the bottom line. Many funerals run well over $10,000.

Yet even if you’re the kind of person who might haggle with a dozen dealers to get the best price on a new car, you’re likely to feel uncomfortable comparing prices or negotiating over the details and cost of a funeral, pre-need or at need. Compounding this discomfort is the fact that some people “overspend” on a funeral or burial because they think of it as a reflection of their feelings for the deceased.

Pre-Need

To help relieve their families of some of these decisions, an increasing number of people are planning their own funerals, designating their funeral preferences, and sometimes even paying for them in advance. They see funeral planning as an extension of will and estate planning.

Planning

Thinking ahead can help you make informed and thoughtful decisions about funeral arrangements. It allows you to choose the specific items you want and need and compare the prices offered by several funeral providers. It also spares your survivors the stress of making these decisions under the pressure of time and strong emotions.

You can make arrangements directly with a funeral establishment or through a funeral planning or memorial society - a nonprofit organizations that provides information about funerals and disposition but doesn’t offer funeral services. If you choose to contact such a group, recognize that while some funeral homes may include the word “society” in their names, they are not nonprofit organizations.

One other important consideration when planning a funeral pre-need is where the remains will be buried, entombed or scattered. In the short time between the death and burial of loved one, many family members find themselves rushing to buy a cemetery plot or grave - often without careful thought or a personal visit to the site. That’s why it’s in the family’s best interest to buy cemetery plots before you need them.

You may wish to make decisions about your arrangements in advance, but not pay for them in advance. Keep in mind that over time, prices may go up and businesses may close or change ownership. However, in some areas with increased competition, prices may go down over time. It’s a good idea to review and revise your decisions every few years, and to make sure your family is aware of your wishes.

Put your preferences in writing, give copies to family members and your attorney, and keep a copy in a handy place. Don’t designate your preferences in your will, because a will often is not found or read until after the funeral. And avoid putting the only copy of your preferences in safe deposit box. That’s because your family may have to make arrangements on a weekend or holiday, before the box can be opened.

Prepaying

Millions of Americans have entered into contracts to prearrange their funerals and prepay some or all of the expenses involved. Laws of individual states govern the prepayment of funeral goods and services; various states have laws to help ensure that these advance payments are available to pay for the funeral products and services when they’re needed. But protections vary widely from state to state, and some state laws offer little or no effective protection. Some state laws require the funeral home or cemetery to place a percentage of the prepayment in a state-regulated trust or to purchase a life insurance policy with the death benefits assigned to the funeral home or cemetery.

If you’re thinking about prepaying for funeral goods and services, it’s important to consider these issues before putting down any money:

  1. What are you paying for? Are you buying only merchandise, like a casket and vault, or are you purchasing funeral services as well?
  2. What happens to the money you’ve prepaid? States have different requirements for handling funds paid for prearranged funeral services.
  3. What happens to the interest income on money that is prepaid and put into a trust account?
  4. Are you protected if the firm you dealt with goes out of business?
  5. Can you cancel the contract and get a full refund if you change your mind?
  6. What happens if you move to a different area or die while away from home? Some prepaid funeral plans can be transferred, but often at an added cost.

Be sure to tell your family about the plans you’ve made; let them know where to documents are filed. If your family isn’t aware that you’ve made plans, you wishes may not be carried out. And if family members don’t know that you’ve prepaid the funeral costs, they could end up paying for the same arrangements. You may wish to consult an attorney on the best way to ensure that your wishes are followed.

The Funeral Rule

The Funeral Rule, enforced by the Federal Trade Commission, requires funeral directors to give you itemized prices in person and, if you ask, over the phone. The Rule also requires funeral directors to give you other information about their goods and services. For example, if you ask about funeral arrangements in person, the funeral home must give you a written price list to keep that shows the goods and services the home offers. If you want to buy a casket or outer burial container, the funeral provider must show you descriptions of the available selections and the prices before actually showing you the caskets.

According to the Funeral Rule:

  1. You have the right to choose the funeral goods and services you want(with some exceptions).
  2. The funeral provider must state this right in writing on the general price list.
  3. If state or local law requires you to buy any particular item, the funeral provider must disclose it on the price list, with a reference to the specific law.
  4. The funeral provider may not refuse, or charge a fee, to handle a casket you bought elsewhere.
  5. A funeral provider that offers cremations must make alternative containers available.

For Cremation:

Many families that opt to have their loved one cremated rent a casket from the funeral home for the visitation and funeral, eliminating the cost of buying a casket. If you opt for visitation and cremation, ask about the rental option. For those who choose a direct cremation without a viewing or other ceremony where the body is present, the funeral provider must offer an inexpensive unfinished wood box or alternative container, a non-metal enclosure - press board, cardboard or canvas that is cremated with the body.

Under the Funeral Rule, funeral directors who offer direct cremations:

Burial Vaults or Grave Liners

Burial vaults or grave lines, also known as burial containers, are commonly used in “traditional,”full-service funerals. The vault or liner is placed in the ground before burial, and the casket is lowered into it at burial. The purpose is to prevent the ground from caving in as the casket deteriorates over time. A grave liner is made of reinforced concrete and will satisfy any cemetery requirement. Grave liners cover only the top and sides of the casket. A burial vault is more substantial and expensive than a grave liner. It surrounds the casket in concrete or another material and may be sold with a warranty of protective strength.

State laws do not require a vault or liner, and funeral providers may not tell you otherwise. However, keep in mind that many cemeteries require some type of outer burial container to prevent the grave from sinking in the future. Neither grave liners nor burial vaults are designed to prevent the eventual decomposition of human remains. It is illegal for funeral providers to claim that a vault will keep water, dirt, or other debris from penetrating into the casket if that’s not true.

Before showing you any outer burial containers, a funeral provider is required to give you a list of prices and descriptions. It may be less expensive to buy an outer burial container from a third-party dealer than from a funeral home or cemetery. Compare prices from several sources before you select a model.

Veterans Cemeteries

All veterans are entitled to a free burial in a national cemetery and a grave marker. This eligibility also extends to some civilians who have provided military-related service and some Public Health Service personnel. Spouses and dependent children also are entitled to a lot and marker when buried in a national cemetery. There are no charges for opening or closing the grave, for a vault or liner, or for setting the marker in a national cemetery.

The family generally is responsible for other expenses, including transportation to the cemetery. For more information, visit the Department of Veterans Affairs’ website at www.cem.va.gov. To reach the regional Veterans office in your area, call 1-800-827-1000.

In addition, many states have established state veterans cemeteries. Eligibility requirements and other details vary. Contact your state for more information.

Beware of commercial cemeteries that advertise so-called “veterans’ specials.” These cemeteries sometimes offer a free plot for the veteran, but charge exorbitant rates for an adjoining plot for the spouse, as well as high fees for opening and closing each grave. Evaluate the bottom-line cost to be sure the special is as special as you may be led to believe.

The information contained on this web page is for informational purposes only and is not be to used as a substitute for legal advice. Call our office for more information and a consultation.