Consumer Guides

A Consumer Guide to Funerals

The last blog in our series about free government brochures is Funerals: A Consumer Guide. However, the catch with this brochure is… it’s a dollar. Not a high price by any means but the Federal Trade Commission wrote it and evidently they want a dollar for every copy sold!

I think that the FTC has done a fair job regulating the funeral industry in this country, and don’t really have a beef with their federal laws, after all, I’m a consumer too.

However, this is the only brochure I’ve reviewed for you that I really don’t like and wouldn’t recommend. It reads like it was written by a very angry person that doesn’t like funeral service. I realize that sometimes unfortunate situations may occur surrounding the events of a funeral; but 99.9% of the funeral directors in this country are upstanding members of their community and are working very hard to serve their families in their time of need.

The language in the brochure is a little scary at times, and makes it sound like it’s not a matter of “if” something goes wrong, but rather “when” something goes wrong. Providing information without bias to an industry or those serving in it is what should be done. It is a disservice to the public to make them feel like they are going to get ripped off before they even meet their local funeral director.

Here’s an example from the brochure of what I mean: “So it’s in the seller’s best interest to start out by showing you higher-end models. If you haven’t seen some of the lower priced models on the price list, ask to see them- but don’t be surprised if they’re not prominently displayed, or displayed at all.” It is not in the best interest of the funeral director to sell a casket to a family that the family can’t afford, have a receivable on the book for a year, and eventually have to take a loss because they could never collect. A smart funeral director will sell a casket to a family that serves the family’s needs, is affordable to them, and the funeral director doesn’t have to carry a receivable on.

Here’s another example in the context of speaking about the funeral director, “They make take advantage of the clients through inflated prices, overcharges, double charges or unnecessary services. “ There are bad apples in every industry and funeral service is no different. But it’s in very poor taste for the FTC to make the consumer feel bad about decisions they haven’t even made yet. And, oh yeah, who was it that wanted the dollar for this brochure? That’s right, the FTC.

Estate Planning - Why It Matters

With all of the legislative hoopla I got off track on my blog series about information obtained from the Federal Citizen Information Center. Let’s pick up with Estate Planning this week (you can read one of our earlier discussion about Estate & Funeral Planning here).

As a little girl, I thought that an estate sale was another name for a garage sale, only for people who were really rich. It wasn’t until much later that I understood that the person had actually died, and even later still that their family may have had to sell a lot of their loved ones possessions in order to pay taxes. I now of course understand that estate planning is not only for the wealthy, and adding up all of your assets can really be an eye-opening experience. Between your home, investments, retirement savings, and life insurance you may come to realize that you are like most people, worth more dead than alive. (I’m joking, don’t get upset.)

The Federal Citizen Information Center has a free brochure on Estate Planning with all kinds of wonderful nuggets of information. It’s really something that I wish would be required reading for anyone over the age of 30. Like most things in life, Estate Planning, is heavy on the planning part. But do you really need to worry about this? The short answer is, “Yes.”

The brochures cites that about half of all Americans die without a will. So what happens in that case? The court system steps in to distribute your property according to the laws of your state, which may or may not coincide with your final wishes. Although unlikely, the state can even claim your estate for itself. Here’s short list of reasons that you should consult with an attorney when creating a will:

• You expect to own estate tax upon your death.

• You think your kids or beneficiaries will disagree on what should be done.

• You have children from more than one marriage, or from a blended family.

• You own property in multiple states.

• You want to establish a trust.

The IRS states that estate taxes in 2008 on an amount of $2,000,000 can be up to 45%! So how can you avoid that? (Even if you’re worth less than $2,000,000):

• Give away assets during your lifetime.

• Using the marital deduction, if the bypass trust or credit shelter trust is not a better option.

• Use a bypass trust or credit shelter trust. This can provide income to the surviving spouse.

• Charitable gifts to qualifying charities are not taxed under most circumstances.

• Life insurance trusts can be designed to keep the proceeds of the policy out of your estate and provide a cash source for your estate.

Here’s a list of reasons that you may have to update your estate plans:

• The value of your assets changes significantly.

• You marry, remarry, or divorce.

• You have a child or new grandchild.

• You move to a different state.

• You need to change the executor of your will.

• One of your heirs dies.

• Your children reach age 18.

• The laws affecting your estate change.

The one thing the brochure advises that I wouldn’t recommend is that you visit the IRS website. I’ve been on that site before and it’s a mess, full of downloadable forms that you can use, it’s unorganized, etc. That’s when the price of an attorney is well worth it.

A Helpful Guide to Long-Term Care Insurance

You may not think of long-term care insurance as an end of life issue, but it’s something that aging people (and progressive younger people) are realizing that they need. People are living longer in various states of awareness. For instance, patients suffering from Alzheimer’s may not understand the difficulties of providing long-term care for them, but their family certainly does.

The brochure, Guide to Long-Term Care Insurance, sponsored by the Federal Citizen Information Center (FCIC), and written by the AHIP is a good review about long term care insurance. The American’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP) is a national association advocating for the consumer who needs to research and buy a health care plan. The following information is adapted from the AHIP brochure and can be ordered for free at the email address above.

By the year 2020 it is expected that 12 million Americans aged 65 and above will need long-term care insurance. So what it is? It covers things like a visiting nurse, a home health aide, meals delivered to your home, and even services for chores such as bathing and grooming. Most importantly it lets people decide if they want to be at home, a nursing home, or assisted living facility. It gives people a choice.

The cost depends on where you are residing. Nursing home costs for a year can average over $50,000. In home care is expensive too, $12,000 a year and up, and even assisted living facilities can cost $24,000 a year.

Generally Medicare does not cover the cost of long-term care insurance and Medicaid only covers about half of the cost of a nursing home. It’s important that client families understand that the government won’t pay for all of their long-term care needs.

The brochure lists 17 questions to ask before purchasing long-term care insurance. Here are a few that stood out:

• How much does the policy pay per day for nursing home care? Home health care? Assisted living facility? Adult Daycare? Alternate care? Respite care?

• Does the policy have a maximum lifetime benefit?

• How long must I wait before preexisting conditions are covered?

• Does the policy offer an inflation adjustment feature?

HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996) says that qualified long-term care insurance receives the same tax treatment as accident and health insurance. However, you should refer your client family to a financial planner or tax advisor regarding eligible deductions available to them.

In conclusion, every state has a Department of Insurance that regulates the industry. You can find their contact information on the web or in the blue government pages of your phone book.

Caring for an Aging Loved One

The Federal Citizen Information Center (FCIC) provides A LOT of free aging and end of life information for consumers. I recently wrote to the FCIC and received about 10 free brochures on those topics. This week we will review the brochure, Caring for an Aging Loved One. You can order this brochure for free at

I am literally surrounded by people at work who are approaching retirement and are beginning the journey of caring for their aging parent. They talk in the halls and the lunch room updating one another how their Mom is doing, or where they are looking to place her, what kind of medications are needed, and even asking me advice on which funeral home to use when the time comes. It seems overwhelming that these people can work a 40+ hour work week on top of caring for someone else, and making life changing decisions. Not having dealt with this topic on person level yet I am in awe at how much they have to research, balance, and make decisions about.

The 28 page brochure Caring for an Aging Loved One outlines what many caregivers need to know or think about. These topics include; How Will You Know When a Loved One Needs Assistance, Developing a Care Plan, Organizing Documents and Paperwork, When Your Loved One Can No Longer Live at Home, Who pays for Long-Term Care, and many more.

Some of the more useful pages in the brochure include information on aging websites. Here are a few off the beaten path that you may not have heard of before. This website was developed by the National Council on Aging (NCOA) to help people determine benefit eligibility in their area. This website is easy to navigate; you will be able to determine quickly if their information will be helpful to you. American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging. This site has some fantastic questionnaires and suggestions for people who are facing aging issues. The Family Caregiver Alliance founded in 1977 is headquartered in California; their website is in English, Spanish, and even Chinese. They have a great archived newsletter, and although many issues are referenced to the State of California, the information provided can be used anywhere.

Pre-Planning Funerals -- Good Idea or Total Rip-Off

The January Edition of the AARP Magazine features an interesting article about pre-funding a funeral and it worth every minute of your time to read (you can read the full AARP article here).

Although it was full of a lot of accurate and helpful information, there are a few additional points which should be referenced. The concept of pre-paying for funeral expenses was not started by American money hungry capitalist pigs in the 1930’s. The concept of pre-paying for all social classes actually began in the Middle-Ages when Burial Clubs were formed and members would contribute funds for shared services such as an Officiant, candles, equipment and supplies which could be used over and over. Members also attended each others funerals.

So although the concept of pre-paying is not new, the ways in which businesses fleece money from people is ever changing; and that is why the most important lesson when pre-paying a funeral is “Buyer Beware”.

There is a common misconception that people have about pre-planning that the article touched upon didn’t explain fully. When you purchase a funeral plan there are certain items that you can pay for in advance and certain items that you cannot pay for in advance.

Those items not paid for in advance are termed “Cash Advance Items.” Those are items that the Mortuary incurs on your behalf for your convenience and they make no money from. A few examples can be death certificates, clergy honorariums, and cemetery charges. Most funeral homes will incur these charges on your behalf so that you can write one check to them after the death has occurred, and then they will pay the State for the certified death certificates, they will pay the clergy directly for you, they will pay the cemetery directly for you.

Cash advance items are listed in a separate contract once the death occurs. But the family thinks, “I already paid for my funeral, why do I have to pay for these charges too?” Almost every family will have some type of cash advance item to pay for when the death occurs. Find out from the funeral home you purchased your pre-need from which items they consider cash advance items that you will be responsible for when the actual death occurs.

Pre-funding a funeral is simply a choice that is good for some for several reasons and doesn’t make sense for others for other reasons. In an upcoming Helping You Through blog we will explore some of those reasons for and against, in greater detail.

Scattering Cremated Remains

When a family chooses ground burial or entombment, it’s obvious that the final disposition of their loved one will be marked with some type of marker stating the person’s name, and dates of birth and death. However, when a family chooses cremation, there are more decisions to be made. Although cremation is considered a final disposition, an argument can be made that it is not. Whatever is done with the cremated remains is actually the final disposition.

A common question is “Can I scatter my loved one in the mountains?” Although the U.S. Forest Service usually turns a blind eye to private scattering, they do strictly prohibit memorials. What that means is that you can scatter your loved in the mountains but you cannot leave any type of physical memorial or marker, which would help you find the scattering place later. In recent years, this has become quite an issue for the U.S. Forest Service. I have found several news stories outlining the hours -- and even days -- spent by U.S. Forest Service workers taking down elaborate and heavy memorials that they correctly argue are not part of the ecosystem...and therefore not permitted on Forest Service land.

The issue is this: Families want to scatter their loved one in the mountains, but they also want a permanent place to go where they can connect with their loved one. They want to visit, to talk to them, to connect with nature, and even connect spiritually. They want to see their loved one’s name in writing on a permanent marker, and know they have not been forgotten. They want to know (And who wouldn’t?) that “My loved one lived a good life, was loved, and should be not forgotten.”

The solution: One solution for families choosing cremation is a scattering garden at a cemetery. Gone are the days of the old creepy cemetery that comes to mind around Halloween each year. Today’s modern cemetery is a place of beauty and comfort. Many cemeteries today offer absolutely beautifully landscaped cremation gardens for scattering AND a place to mark in stone that “My loved one lived a good life, was loved, and should be not forgotten.”

The Three Types of Cemeteries

A cemetery is a cemetery is a cemetery, right? Not exactly. There are three main types of cemeteries in the United States today; Government, Private, and Public… and they have major differences.

The National Cemetery system was created by Abraham Lincoln after the Civil War. Arlington National Cemetery, the first and most recognized, was actually the plantation property of Robert E. Lee. There are now over 115 National Cemeteries in 39 states. What does one pay to be buried in a National Cemetery? Nothing. Any honorably discharged veteran, his/her spouse, and their dependent children are eligible for burial in a National Cemetery. The cemetery plot, grave line or vault, and grave marker are all provided at no cost to the family. So you don’t want to be buried in a National Cemetery even though you’re eligible? The Veterans Administration which oversees the National Cemetery system will still prove the free grave marker and deliver it to the private of public cemetery of you choice.

The private cemetery is more or less like a neighborhood. It is managed by an association for the benefit of people who own the plots in that cemetery. They determine the rules and covenants of the cemetery, not unlike a homeowners association. These cemeteries are usually funded by a trust of endowment fund. This scenario is common in old rural areas, especially in the eastern part of the country where our history is so rich. It is also likely seen within the property of a church. Many historical churches have cemeteries on their property.

The public cemetery, the for-profit cemetery, provides the services and merchandise for a fee and the profit goes to the owners. Most cemeteries in the United States are for-profit.

Many people chose a cemetery based of the history, beautiful sculptures, and peaceful feeling they have when visiting. But buying cemetery property is like buying any other property. There are rules and regulations, the long lists of “you may…” and “you may not…” The most important thing is that you can abide by the rules. If you are a person who wants to place fresh flowers on the grave several times a year, but the cemetery policy is artificial flowers only, then that may not be the cemetery for you.

Why We Should Pre-Plan Our Funerals

Pre-need is something that the anti-funeral opposition wants you to think has been somehow created by the modern day funeral service profession in an attempt to take your money before you die. In fact, pre-arranging and pre-need have been around forever, our modern day society is the first to not plan for their own deaths.

Those Pyramids in Egypt? Those were well planned out burial chambers, albeit for the wealthy. Jesus’ tomb? It was given to his family by a man who had already planned for his own funeral. Ever see a picture of an outlaw from the Wild West in his 8 sided coffin? Folks used to go down to the furniture store and get measured for their coffins so that when they died, it was all bought and paid for.

From Ancient Egypt, to Biblical times, to the late 1800’s in America, people planned for their deaths, because they knew it was imminent, and they knew financial expense was involved.

So why should you pre-plan your funeral?

It takes the emotion out of it. It’s easier to make decisions when the death hasn’t occurred, and everyone is healthy.

You Retain Control

Although you’ll be in attendance at your own funeral as compared to attending your own funeral, many people want to go out in the words of Frank Sinatra, “I did it my way.”

It will unburden your loved ones from making decisions about things you never discussed.

It protects your estate from having to pay for the funeral expenses.

You Avoid Inflation

It allows you to pick a casket and lock it in at today’s prices.

It’s Personalized

Do you have a favorite book that you want given to everyone in attendance? Do you a special candy passed out as everyone leaves the service? These are all things that you make arrangements for in advance.

You Achieve Peace of Mind

Pre-planning a funeral is like making a will, once it’s done, it’s done.

And here is a final thought …

”Death never takes the wise man by surprise; he is always ready to go.”
Jean de La Fontaine (1621-1695) French Poet.

10 Things You Need to Know About Dying in Colorado

Over the years, people have continually asked me for advice about making their end of life arrangements. It seems that this is information that people don’t realize they need, until they need it, and then, it can be difficult to find.

Sometimes, people will rely on secondhand information from family or friends -- who may be living in different States. The problem with this is that every state has different laws and regulations. So, what may be perfectly acceptable in one State, could get you into serious trouble in Colorado.

Here is a list of the top 10 things you need to know about dying in colorado.

1. If a death occurs at home and hospice is not involved it is responded to as a 911 call with police, fire department, and ambulance services, which includes attempt to revive the patient.

2. Everyone needs to speak with an attorney about their end of life wishes.

3. Financial issues need to be discussed two-fold. Money needed during the illness, and money needed after the death occurs.

4. The Colorado Organ Donor Registry states that, “Being on the Colorado Organ and Tissue Donor registry means that you have elected to have all of your organs and tissues made available for transplant at the time of your death.”

5. Determination of whether or not a body can be accepted for donation can only be made after the death has occurred.

6. Colorado is the only state in the country that does not require licensure of funeral service professionals.

7. Write down both “I want…” and “I don’t want…” statements when making end of life decisions.

8. Death Certificates are $17 for the first copy and $10 for each additional copy requested at the same time.

9. It is not important how you grieve, what is important is that you grieve.

10. Accept help from others.

Each of these subjects are covered in more detail in End of Life Insights: Colorado, the handbook for end of life care in Colorado.

4 Steps to Selecting a Funeral Home After an Unexpected Death

How do you select a funeral home after the sudden loss of your loved one?

The most important piece of information you need to know is that although decisions regarding funeral home selection need to be made quickly, they do not need to be made immediately.

Do not feel pressured to make this important decision before you have all of the information you need!

Over the years, I’ve developed a simple checklist to help in the funeral home selection process:

1. Ask a friend to research funeral homes for you. Many people will be asking you, “If there’s anything I can do to help please tell me.” Well, this task is something practical -- and necessary -- that a friend or other family member can help you with.

2. Contact the clergy member or celebrant who will be officiating the service, and ask if there is a funeral home that he or she can recommend. This person have years of experience with the funeral homes in your area. He or she also knows your personal situation, and can almost certainly help steer you in the right direction.

3. The coroner’s office or hospital may provide you with a list of funeral homes in the area. Funeral homes are something no one pays attention to, until you need one. So it’s quite possible that you may not know all your options. Make sure you have the most up to date information before starting your search. You could end up saving yourself a lot of time and stress, and maybe even a lot of money.

4. If the funeral or burial will be taking place in another State, choose the funeral home in the State where your loved one will be laid to rest. This can be a complicated process, however, you needn’t be burdened by it. You have enough to deal with already. The funeral director in that State will make the necessary arrangements with a the funeral home where the death has occurred.