Advance payment is almost always required for cremation and immediate burial. For traditional funerals, some homes ask for payment in advance once arrangements are decided upon, although if asked they might work out an installment plan. Other homes allow 30 to 60 days for payment with no interest charges, and almost all accept credit cards.

Check for Available Benefits

Because many people are not aware of the benefits available for final expenses, money often remains unclaimed. Remember that most death benefits are not automatically sent to survivors and must be applied for.

Filing for death benefits on behalf of survivors is a standard service of most funeral homes. If survivors decide to file their own claims, the funeral director should be asked if this will reduce the home’s “professional services” charge.

Social Security

A lump-sum Social Security death benefit of $255 is available to a surviving eligible spouse or dependent child (under 18). An application must be filed within two years of the death. Payment is made directly to the surviving spouse or entitled child, never the funeral home.

FEMA Reimbursements for COVID Deaths

In April 2021, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) launched a reimbursement program to help those who lost loved ones during the pandemic. Anyone with COVID-related funeral expenses incurred after January 20, 2020, may be eligible for a reimbursement of up to $9,000.

FEMA’s COVID-19 funeral assistance will help cover the cost of funeral services, burial, or cremation—including a casket or urn, funeral home expenses, burial plot, marker or headstone, and clergy services.

According to FEMA, you can receive assistance if the funeral expenses were for a death that “may have been caused by or was likely the result of COVID-19.” You will need documentation of those expenses that shows your name.

Funeral homes cannot apply on behalf of a family or be a co-applicant. The person applying must be an individual, not a business, who incurred the funeral expenses.

You cannot apply for funeral reimbursement money online. You need to call FEMA’s dedicated COVID-19 Funeral Assistance Helpline at 844-684-6333 (TTY: 800-462-7585).

There is no deadline for requesting this benefit.

Veterans Benefits

Honorably discharged veterans and their spouses may be entitled to burial in one of 155 national cemeteries in 42 states (and Puerto Rico), with a grave marker and a flag for the casket. Other benefits may be available if the death occurred during active duty or during hospitalization in a veterans’ facility. To check, contact the Veterans Affairs’ Veterans Benefits Administration (800-827-1000).

Other Benefits

Other possible death benefits are payments from life insurance policies, fraternal organizations, lodges, clubs, union welfare funds, retirement plans, and employers. To track these down, survivors should get in touch with organizations and institutions the deceased worked for or was affiliated with. Many of these benefits are available for surviving relatives to use as they see fit, not only for a funeral.

Avoid Prepaid Funeral Plans

You can write down your own preferences for your funeral arrangements and give them to a likely survivor. Alternatively, you can file a preference form with a funeral home without making any financial commitment. Both are good ideas.

Many funeral homes push plans that let you prepay for your funeral. These agreements represent major financial commitments and, in our opinion, are usually not prudent. Prepaid funerals often create more problems than they solve. It’s not uncommon for the new owner of a funeral home to refuse to honor price guarantees made by the previous owner. Many “cash advance” items or services provided by a third party—fees for death certificates, opening and closing graves, engraving, and honoraria for clergy or musicians—are not guaranteed, so families frequently face additional expenses. And many unscrupulous funeral directors across the U.S. have simply embezzled customers’ prepaid funds, leaving the family with nothing.

A simpler arrangement is to open a regular savings account at your bank and name your chosen funeral home as the recipient of the funds upon your death. Alternatively, you can open a savings account with instructions that it transfers upon your death to a likely likely survivor, which will give him or her access to the funds when you die. Either arrangement will let the funds avoid probate and make them available immediately for funeral costs.

Tell your likely survivors about any arrangements you make with a funeral home, so they don’t pay for services at a different home.

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