By David Pitt, AP Personal Finance Writer
DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — A funeral is one of the steepest expenses we'll face but many important decisions are made emotionally rather than with a close eye on costs.
"It doesn't matter how much you spend, it doesn't make a person any less dead. It doesn't mean you love them any more or less and it isn't going to bring them back," said Josh Slocum, executive director of Funeral Consumers Alliance, a Vermont-based nonprofit advocacy group.
He said funerals should be treated like any other consumer transaction by comparing costs and services. Charges at different funeral homes in the same metropolitan area can vary by thousands of dollars, so it pays to shop around.
A federal law enforced by the Federal Trade Commission makes comparison shopping much easier today than it was a generation ago.
The law, called the funeral rule, requires funeral directors to provide an itemized list of services and their costs. It was designed to ease the pressure on consumers to buy bundled services, some of which they may not need.
The rule also stopped funeral directors from forcing consumers to buy a casket from them, often at inflated prices. Funeral homes must accept a casket or urn purchased elsewhere.
In recent years, competition has increased with online and discount retailers offering consumers more choices than ever. Caskets, for example, can be bought from Wal-Mart and Costco. It's all good for consumers, who for decades had little choice but to buy from their local funeral home, said Matthew Contor, an antitrust attorney and partner with the New York-based law firm Constantine Cannon.
"If we allow for competition to flourish rather than for it to be stunted, consumers will have the opportunity to get the most quality and least cost for funeral products and services," he said.
A cautionary note about buying caskets or funeral supplies from an online vendor: Make sure the casket can be delivered to the funeral home on time, said James Olson, funeral director at the Lippert-Olson Funeral Home in Sheboygan, Wis. Although funeral homes must comply with the FTC rules, it's important to know that online vendors and cemeteries do not, said Olson, who also is a spokesman for the National Funeral Directors Association, a trade group.
That could soon change, however.
A bill, sponsored by Rep. Bobby Rush, an Illinois Democrat, would require the FTC to regulate other funeral services vendors including cemeteries.
A congressional committee on Wednesday approved the bill, which goes to the full House for consideration.
Here are some tips to keep in mind when shopping for funeral services, whether you're planning for yourself or arranging the funeral of a loved one.
1. Know your consumer rights.
Anyone who walks into a funeral home and inquires must be given a general price list. Customers must be allowed to take this list home to consider the costs.
If you shop by telephone, funeral directors are required to provide price information to callers.
Funeral homes often offer packages, but consumers have the right to choose only the separate goods and services they want. Sometimes packages cost less than their individual components. If you're comparing one funeral home to another, make sure the packages include the same set of services.
The FTC outlines the funeral rule and provides more guidance here: http://tiny.cc/5ort5.
The national funeral directors trade group offers a consumers bill of rights at: http://tinyurl.com/25cbmge.
2. Avoid emotional overspending.
Emotions at the time of a death can often drive family members to overspend.
"The peculiarity of this business is that its profitability is dependent necessarily on how much you spend in a vulnerable and grief-stricken time," Slocum said. "There's no other transaction like it."
But it's important to keep in mind the family budget, wishes of the deceased, and religious and cultural traditions.
The average cost of a full-service funeral can approach $10,000 but that includes a lot of services many families may not feel they need, such as embalming or the costs of a public viewing.
Slocum cringes at such an estimate, saying it can cause consumers to think that's what should be spent for a "traditional" or "normal" funeral, suggesting anything less would be inadequate.
Other less costly options are available including direct burial or direct cremation.
Direct burial includes a simple container and burial shortly after death. Similarly, direct cremation occurs shortly after death, with the remains placed in an urn or other container.
These services don't include viewing or visitation, which reduces the single most expensive aspect of a funeral — the casket. Also, no embalming is necessary, which cuts costs by hundreds of dollars.
This point raises a common misperception that embalming is required by law. It isn't in most cases, a fact that should be disclosed on the funeral home's price list.
3. Understand basics about the casket and burial containers.
Costs can range from a few hundred dollars to $5,000 or more. Funeral homes are required to provide a written casket price list before they show clients the caskets. If you don't see lower-priced options on display, ask to see them.
Often, grave liners or burial vaults also are sold to protect the casket. State laws do not require a vault or liner. Some cemeteries require an outer burial container to prevent a grave from sinking.
Like caskets, funeral directors must show you a price list for grave liners and vaults and must allow you to use one purchased elsewhere.
4. Exercise caution if pre-planning your own funeral.
Planning a funeral and paying in advance for services and a cemetery plot is a thoughtful way to help a family through the difficult time of a loved one's death. However, many cases have surfaced in recent years in which millions of dollars of prepaid money was stolen by unethical business owners. Caution is advised when considering prepayment.
Slocum, the consumer advocate, recommends planning ahead but keeping the money in a family bank account. It should be set up so it's payable on death to the family member who will be in charge of arrangements.
It's important to have a conversation with family members about your wishes, the plans you've made and information about the account set up for payment.
Comparable consumer protections are in place for pre-need customers. Funeral directors must provide a price list and are prohibited from offering only package funerals.
It's a good idea to discuss any preplanning contract with an attorney or financial planner before signing.
5. Seek help if a funeral or costs were not right.
For consumers who run into problems there are a few avenues for redress.
If you have a problem with funeral arrangements that cannot be resolved with the funeral director, see the Funeral Consumers Alliance advice on how to file a complaint at: http://tinyurl.com/25b7nek.
The National Funeral Directors Association has a help line at 800-228-6332.
What's more, all states but Colorado and Hawaii have a funeral board or agency that regulates funeral directors. Complaints may be directed to them. State attorneys general have consumer affairs divisions that also could help. Find your state attorney general's office at http://www.naag.org.
If local assistance isn't working, a complaint can be filed with the FTC. Visit www.ftc.gov or call 1-877-382-4357.
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