Start planning your funeral whether you plan to die or not

PERSONAL FINANCE

April 14, 2002|By EILEEN AMBROSE

LET'S talk about death - yours.

If your demise will be like many others, just when your family members are deep in grief they will be called upon to quickly make huge financial decisions about your funeral.

The traditional funeral averages about $6,100, and that doesn't include burial plot and other cemetery costs that can add another $3,000.

"Some people spend more on a funeral than they do on a vehicle," said Joanne Hamilton, an extension educator with the Maryland Cooperative Extension in Anne Arundel County. "It's a time when people are grieving and they make poor financial decisions."

It doesn't have to be that way. If you plan ahead and shop around, you can reduce the cost of your own funeral and burial, plus eliminate the decision-making burden for your family.

Planning ahead doesn't necessarily mean paying ahead. But it does mean thinking about the type of funeral you want and how much you want or can afford to spend.

Hamilton, for instance, said she plans to donate her body to a state medical school, where it can be used for teaching.

"I spent my whole life in education," the 48-year-old said. "I thought after I'm no longer here that it would make a lot of sense to me that somebody would be able to learn something."

Once science is done with her body, the remains will be cremated and the ashes sent to her family, Hamilton said.

An added benefit - no cost. "Instead of on a funeral, I can spend my money on a cruise or trip, which I value more than a funeral," she said.

To learn about your funeral options and rights under federal law, check out the Federal Trade Commission's free Funerals: A Consumer Guide online at www.ftc.gov or by calling 1-877-382-4357 for a copy.

Other resources include the Funeral Consumers Alliance at www.funerals.org and the Maryland Cooperative Extension's free funeral planning brochure available at www.agnr.umd.edu/MCE/publications or by calling 410-222-6756.

Experts recommend visiting several funeral homes and cemeteries.

The purpose is not just to compare prices, which can vary widely, but to compare funeral homes and directors, as well as seeing whether the cemetery will be near family and where exactly your body will be laid to rest, experts said.

Compare prices

Federal law requires that funeral homes give you an itemized price list if you visit in person. You also can ask for price quotes over the phone.

The traditional funeral with open-casket visitation and ground burial is the most expensive, but you can choose less pricey alternatives, such as direct burial or cremation without visitation and embalming. Federal law doesn't require embalming, although funeral homes generally do if you have an open-casket viewing.

The casket is the most expensive item, and prices are wide-ranging. You can buy one from a cemetery, funeral home, over the Internet or build your own. Funeral homes cannot charge a handling fee if you use a casket acquired someplace else.

Should you prepay? States regulate prepaid funerals and burials, and some states offer better consumer protections than others.

Some consumer advocates advise against prepaying, except in cases where someone has no relatives or wants to take care of their funeral needs before applying for Medicaid. A prepaid funeral isn't considered part of a person's assets when figuring Medicaid eligibility.

Advocates cite problems where funeral prepayments have been embezzled, the funeral home has closed or families have been told they must buy a more expensive casket because the one in the prepaid contract is no longer made.

Unaware of abuses

"You might also be locked in to a high-priced funeral," and prices might actually go down with competition or if a low-cost provider opens in your area, said Lisa Carlson, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance in Vermont.

John Chaplin, president of Maryland's Board of Morticians and a Bethesda mortician, said he's unaware of any case of prepaid funeral abuse here.

In Maryland, for instance, 80 percent of the price of the casket and 100 percent of the cost of other funeral home services must be kept in a trust in a federally insured bank, Chaplin said.

By prepaying, you can lock in the costs of the casket and other services under the funeral home's control, he said. Your family may have to kick in more money if prices go up for other items, such as obituary notices, flowers or death certificates.

Maryland funeral directors say you can break or revise a funeral contract up until death and get back all your money plus interest.

And if by the time you die the casket you wanted is no longer available, the funeral home will replace it with one of comparable quality at no additional cost, Chaplin said.

Those getting Medicaid benefits, however, have less flexibility. Medicaid recipients can't take the money out of the trust, though they can change funeral homes, say, if they move.

To prepay burial costs, you will have to enter into a separate agreement with a cemetery.

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