They say death and taxes are inevitable. When you hear that old truism you probably picture all of the money the taxes will cost you.
But guess what? Death can be pricey too because funeral homes and cemeteries sometimes charge high prices during our time of grief.
The Federal Trade Commission and the U.S. Department of Justice have just fined a Washington, D.C., funeral home $25,000 for failing to provide a list of casket prices to consumers before they choose one. That's against the FTC's funeral rule, which is meant to make sure people know all of their options when making arrangements for the death of a loved one.
Funerals are one of the most expensive purchases consumers ever make. A traditional funeral costs about $6,000 and fancier ones can easily top $10,000
In the past, unscrupulous funeral homes have only shown customers fancy caskets. Rushing to make funeral arrangements, many families have felt they had no choice but to go with one of these expensive choices. That's why, every year, the FTC goes undercover to see if funeral homes are informing customers of their full range of choices. In my years of covering the Federal Trade Commission, I have to say that this is the most aggressive, proactive approach I have seen the agency take with any consumer issue.
Under the Funeral Rule, you have the right to choose the specific goods and services you want, instead of being pushed into a package deal. Funeral directors are required to give you an itemized price list that you can take home with you. Ask for one. They are also required to give you a list of casket prices before they show you any caskets. That's so you'll know the full price range even if the funeral director is pushing pricier models.
If you choose to buy a casket from someone other than the funeral home, you can. Funeral homes are not allowed to refuse an outside casket. You can also switch funeral homes at any time, as long as you pay the original funeral home for the goods and services you have already used. Here are some other common funeral schemes.
• Charging extra for filing the death certificate or getting it medically certified.
• Charging a fee to handle an outside casket. (Funeral homes are required to accept outside caskets.)
• Charging a commission for forwarding payment to third parties.
• Claiming embalming is required by law when it's not. (Check with your state.)
• Charging for goods and services that the family did not request.
• Charging for goods and services that the family did request, then not providing them.
There are additional pitfalls at the cemetery. It's better to deal directly with the cemetery, so you know what you're getting, rather than buying a cemetery plot through a funeral home. Make sure you visit the cemetery in advance and that you like it. Then sign a contract with the cemetery, including the itemized cost of each burial service and the location of the plot. Religious and non-profit cemeteries often don't have to be licensed. For-profit cemeteries often do.
Shoddy maintenance is another frequent problem. When you visit the cemetery, look for signs of deterioration. Consider whether you're buying one of the last plots. If so, the cemetery won't be bringing in new revenue for much longer and may face financial difficulties. Make sure your contract with the cemetery specifies the level of maintenance you can expect. Choose a cemetery with a perpetual care fund. The fund sets aside money for maintenance.
DO YOUR HOMEWORK:
1. If you choose to prepay for your own funeral, make sure your family knows. Leave instructions where your family can easily find them. Some families have paid twice for funeral services because they didn't realize their loved one had made arrangements.
2. Get itemized price lists from more than one funeral home and compare. Make sure the funeral homes are not owned by the same company. National chains now own many funeral homes, cutting down on competition.
3. Check the reputations of the funeral homes by contacting the Better Business Bureau and your county and state consumer protection offices.
4. Find out what's included in the funeral home's basic services fee.
5. Consider getting receipts for fees the funeral home will pay to third parties like florists, limousine companies and cemeteries, or pay these providers yourself.
6. Compare costs at different cemeteries.
7. Find out if the cemetery you're considering is required to be licensed and whether it is.
8. Check the cemetery's reputation with the BBB and county and state consumer protection offices.
9. Visit the cemetery and the specific gravesite before committing.
10. Sign a contract with the cemetery that specifies the price, where the plot is located and the level of maintenance.