Prepaid Funeral Arrangements Can Have Grave Consequences
An important part of estate planning involves consideration of funeral or memorial arrangements, including paying for some or all of the costs in advance. Planning ahead not only spares your survivors from the stress of making these decisions, but prepaying for your services relieves your survivors from the burden of worrying about money during an otherwise difficult time.
One way to prepay your funeral is by entering into a pre-need agreement with a funeral home of your choice. The funeral home may agree to "lock in" costs for future funeral or burial services at an agreed-upon price. This is often done through a trust or other arrangement that you can fund with cash, bonds, or life insurance. At your death, the funds are disbursed to pay for your funeral according to the terms of the agreement.
But before entering into a prepaid arrangement, you may want to get answers to the following questions:
- What happens to the funds you've prepaid? How are they held? Do they earn interest? Are they safe?
- What happens if the funeral home goes out of business? What protections, if any, do you have that your funds will be available when needed?
- Can you cancel the agreement and, if so, are you able to receive a refund?
- If you move, can your funds be transferred to another funeral home? Will the same terms apply? Is there a fee or cost to transfer your funds to another funeral home?
The Funeral Rule
There are some legal protections available to consumers of funeral home services. The Funeral Rule, enforced by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), requires funeral providers to give consumers accurate, itemized price information and other disclosures about funeral goods and services. The Rule also prohibits funeral providers from misrepresenting service-related requirements and from engaging in unfair or deceptive practices.
The key feature of the Funeral Rule is the General Price List, which entitles consumers to receive itemized prices for the various goods and services offered, allowing them to comparison shop and to purchase goods and services on an itemized basis, and not solely as part of a package. For more information on shopping for funeral services, the Funeral Rule, and prepaying for some or all of the expenses involved, visit the FTC consumer website www.consumer.ftc.gov.
State law protections
The Funeral Rule generally governs funeral providers. It does not offer specific remedies or causes of action for consumers who are victims of funeral providers that do not comply with the Rule. Laws in individual states regulate funeral providers and help ensure that advance payments are available when they're needed. However, protections vary widely from state to state, sometimes providing a window of opportunity for unscrupulous operators.
What can you do?
Before entering into a prepaid agreement, here are some steps you can take to safeguard your funds and ensure you'll get the services you've payed for:
- Find out what kind of consumer protection your state provides and whether it regulates the payment methods.
- Be sure that your funds or insurance policy are held in a trust at a reputable bank or other financial institution that you can check on to be sure your money or policy is safe. You may even be entitled to an annual statement.
- If you're funding some or all of the pre-need arrangements with life insurance purchased through the funeral services provider, be sure the policy is permanent insurance, such as whole life, and not term insurance (if you outlive the term of the policy, there will be no insurance proceeds to pay for your funeral).
- The agreement should address what happens to any excess funds that may be available after paying for your services. Some pre-need contracts allow you to designate how excess funds are to be disposed (e.g., surviving family members, your church or other charity).
- Along those same lines, if you cancel the contract, you may be entitled to a partial or full refund, although some states allow the funeral provider to retain a portion of the funds, often depending on how long the contract has been in existence.
Ultimately, be sure to tell your family about the plans you've made and where you'll keep important documents, such as your last will and testament and any documentation you've retained concerning your pre-need funeral arrangements.