Loved one’s grave may need stranger’s care

via Loved one’s grave may need stranger’s care, clarionledger.com

PDF: The_Clarion-Ledger_State_20160806_A002_4IMG_0142

Sharp-eyed readers may remember that a few weeks ago I wrote about a perpetual care cemetery in Meridian that had been the subject of enforcement by the Mississippi secretary of state’s office after failing to keep up the maintenance on a cemetery housing some of Meridian’s oldest families (and the final resting place of the late U.S. Rep. G.V. “Sonny” Montgomery).

If you have a loved one interred in one of Mississippi’s hundreds of cemeteries, whether the gravesite is maintained can be sketchy. In many cases, graveyard owners and management companies do an exceptional job maintaining the cemetery and individual gravesites. For others, unfortunately, maintenance is a constant struggle. Especially in many older cemeteries and those without a standing custodial organization such as a church cemetery association, neglect is rampant.

Many of my passed-on ancestors and relatives lie in a number of church and family cemeteries in Lincoln and Pike counties. Recently, upon visiting my late brother’s grave in an old church cemetery, I noticed a large oak branch had fallen across the grave after a storm, the stone was partially covered by a fire-ant mound, and many of the headstones were sinking unevenly into the ground. Looking around the old cemetery, it’s obvious someone had mowed fairly recently, but many of the graves were overgrown, with some low-lying stones covered by creeping grass. Some stones were broken and darkened to the point that their inscriptions were illegible. In stark contrast, other graves nearby had been lovingly maintained, probably by family members.

After I wrote the column about the Meridian cemetery, I got an interesting comment from a company called Heaven’s Maid. This innovative company will — for an annual fee ranging from $39 to $89 — ensure your loved one’s grave is maintained.

Heaven’s Maid was started by two Michigan friends, Sabah Ammouri and Michael Goliszek, who wanted to do something after Ammouri visited his grandparents’ graves, only to find the gravesite overgrown with weeds and moss, which made the inscription illegible. Ammouri contacted Goliszek, and the pair started the web-based Heaven’s Maid, one of several similar businesses that have risen to meet the increasing demand for individualized gravesite service.

Heaven’s Maid says it’ll scrub the headstone, edge around it and level it out. It also promises to remove weeds around the stone, fertilize the ground around it and remove debris. For another fee, it’ll place silk flowers on the grave. Once the work is done, it’ll send you a photo to confirm it, and you can use its site to post pictures and memories of your loved one.

This service is designed especially for those who live far from where their loved ones are buried.  “We believe every resting place should be treated with care and respect,” Goliszek told me. Currently, the company provides services in 10 states, including Mississippi, and is working on partnerships with 164 cemeteries. Visitors to the site can search for a local cemetery and request it be added.

Goliszek noted the company hires and trains freelancers to provide services, and works with cemeteries to ensure caretakers adhere to industry standard rules and practices. For example, it would be easy for an untrained person to damage a headstone by using the wrong cleaning materials or techniques, or to violate cemetery policies by failing to obtain permission to do the work.

The gravesite maintenance business is a relatively new niche market, but is growing fast, with several companies having arisen to meet the demand. In many cemeteries that provide excellent care, these services would be unnecessary. But this growing need could signal a profitable venture for entrepreneurs willing to work hard and provide excellent customer service.

Advertisements

Perpetual care cemetery owner busted

cemetery2

WTOK

via Perpetual care cemetery owner busted, clarionledger.com

PDF: The_Clarion-Ledger_State_20160708_A002_1

“Forever” is a long time, but it seems that it’s harder than you might imagine to get a place where your remains can remain undisturbed that long. Many churches and old community cemeteries throughout Mississippi provide peaceful resting spots that have been maintained for generations, but even these may eventually be lost to the years as current generations die out and new ones emerge.

While in reality, management of any cemetery carries with it the obligations of maintaining it for an unlimited term into the future, many people have been for years trusting in “perpetual-care” cemeteries. When you agree to purchase a burial plot, you should be reasonably confident the grounds will be well-kept, roads and infrastructure maintained, and markers maintained and repaired as needed. In fact, all new cemeteries built after 2009 (except those operated by churches, religious societies, governments and those in a few other categories) must be considered “perpetual care” cemeteries, and subject to the law.

Here in Mississippi, perpetual-care cemeteries are required by state law to hold back 15 percent of all ground burial sales and five percent of mausoleum and niche sales to a special account called a perpetual-care trust. The fund is then to be used to defray the expenses involved in maintaining the cemetery. They’re required to file a report every year with the secretary of state’s office to include —among other things — how much money is in the trust fund and how funds have been spent.

But occasionally, the secretary of state takes action against cemetery operators for alleged failure to adhere to the law. Last week, Secretary of State Delbert Hosemannfiled an action against the operators of Magnolia Cemetery and Meridian Memorial Park, and the owner of the cemeteries, William E. Arlinghaus, in Lauderdale County Chancery Court. In a statement from Hosemann’s office, he noted the cemeteries house the remains of former U.S. Rep. G.V. “Sonny” Montgomery and “numerous Meridian families.”

In the complaint, Hosemann asked the court to appoint a receiver for the properties, which will take over the assets and ensure compliance with state law. “Upon obtaining ownership of both Magnolia Cemetery and Meridian National Park in November 2011,” noted Hosemann in the release, “William Arlinghaus has completely failed to remit to trust the collections for his sales for ground burials (15 percent) and mausoleum/niche sales (5 percent).  After examinations were conducted by the Regulation and Enforcement Division of the Secretary of State’s Office, Mr. Arlinghaus failed to trust a total of $33,349.83 through October 2015.” Hosemann also noted several consumer complaints had been received, alleging “maintenance neglect” and failure to deliver markers that had been purchased by families or estates.

Hosemann’s office also applied for a temporary restraining order preventing Arlinghaus from continuing to sell pre-need policies to consumers. “Care of the final resting place of our families is critical to us as a society,” says Secretary Hosemann.  “Citizens need to know the funds they place in trust today will provide their care in perpetuity.”

To find out more about buying funeral and related services, the Federal Trade Commission has a special series on the topic, entitled Shopping for Funeral Services, at http://1.usa.gov/1ox8byi.

Feds sting 27 funeral homes

Originally published in the Clarion-Ledger on 5/15/2015.

PDF: Feds sting 27 funeral homes

When you go to a funeral provider to make arrangements for a loved one, you are especially vulnerable. Few of us are at our best when we’re faced with making decisions about making arrangements for our loved ones, and could be subject to being taken advantage of during a time of grief.

In general, the funeral business enjoys a well-earned good reputation, but there are bad apples. Occasionally, we hear about people who paid more than they should, got less than they paid for, or were sold shoddy merchandise. So to protect consumers, the federal government has a set of rules (the 1984 “Funeral Rule”) that mandate funeral providers to disclose certain things.

The rule requires that you must be given an itemized general price list at the start of an in-person discussion of funeral arrangements, a casket price list before consumers view any caskets, and an outer burial container price list before they view grave liners or vaults. The Rule also prohibits funeral homes from requiring consumers to buy any item, such as a casket, as a condition of obtaining any other funeral good or service.

Enforcement of the funeral rule falls to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and each year, the agency conducts surprise undercover investigations to determine whether funeral homes are in compliance. Last week, the agency announced the results of unannounced undercover visits to 100 funeral homes in six states (Arkansas, California, Maryland, Missouri, New York and Washington). More than a quarter of those (27) failed to disclose the required information to consumers.

The FTC can choose to levy large penalties, but also offers the operators the option of attending a specialized compliance program, in which they must undergo training provided by the National Funeral Directors’ Association and pay fines. All but two of the 27 funeral homes on that list, noted the FTC, agreed to participate in the program.

It’s important to know what your rights are before you start making arrangements. According to the FTC, you have the right to:

  • Buy only the funeral arrangements you want. You have the right to buy separate goods (such as caskets) and services (such as embalming or a memorial service). You do not have to accept a package that may include items you do not want.
  • Get price information on the telephone. You don’t have to give them your name, address, or telephone number first.
  • Get a written, itemized price list when you visit a funeral home. The funeral home must give you a General Price List (GPL) that is yours to keep. It lists all the items and services the home offers, and the cost of each one.
  • See a written casket price list before you see the actual caskets. Sometimes, detailed casket price information is included on the funeral home’s GPL. More often, though, it’s provided on a separate casket price list. Get the price information before you see the caskets, so that you can ask about lower-priced products that may not be on display.
  • See a written outer burial container (vault) price list. Outer burial containers are not required by state law anywhere in the U.S., but many cemeteries require them to prevent the grave from caving in. If the funeral home sells containers, but doesn’t list their prices on the GPL, you have the right to look at a separate container price list before you see the containers. If you don’t see the lower-priced containers listed, ask about them.

The Funeral Rule gives you more control of the process. To learn more, you can download an FTC brochure at http://1.usa.gov/1n7mhaa.

Will power: Get documents in order

via Will power: Get documents in order, on clarionledger.com.

It happens with astonishing frequency. An elderly parent dies without a will or living trust, leaving it to the courts to figure out who’s going to get what. In the meantime, families can be torn apart by relatives fighting for a share of the estate. Such battles don’t just affect those with hefty estates; even minor possessions can be the subject of discord, and families have been torn apart over what seem like trivial matters, but are actually fraught with a lifetime’s worth of emotional baggage.

With senior citizens’ numbers at historical record levels, many of them will die without having made arrangements for what happens to their property. Dying intestate (without a will) is incredibly common. According to a study released this week by Caring.com, only a little more than half of American parents have a will or living trust document.

And even if there is a will or trust documents stashed away in some drawer, it’s likely the documents haven’t been updated; only about four in 10 parents have updated their documents in the last one to five years. Nearly a quarter of adult children don’t know if their parent’s will has ever been updated, and even if there’s a will, there’s never been a discussion about what happens after the parents pass on. Adult children often wouldn’t know where to find the documents, much less what they entail.

“Wills and estate documents can be a touchy subject, but they are necessary conversations to have,” said Andy Cohen, CEO of Caring.com. “Too often the surviving family members are left not knowing where to find the documents, or worse, have to go through a lengthy and expensive legal process because no documents were ever created.”

The reasons for people not having wills are usually not that major. According to the legal site RocketLawyer.com, a survey last year indicated most (57 percent) just hadn’t gotten around to making one. Other excuses: It just wasn’t an urgent need, they didn’t think they needed one, and they didn’t want to think about death.

Caring.com’s study also looked at the differences between women and men, and people of different ages. Adults 18-49 are the “least likely to be informed about their parents’ documents,” but nearly a third of adult children over 50 wouldn’t know where to look, and even fewer know what’s in the documents. Women are generally more knowledgeable about the contents of the documents, while men are more likely to know where they’re stored.

Nearly all financial experts urge us to think harder on these issues; although the rules for who gets what are pretty clear in most states where there’s a surviving spouse or minor children, having a will or trust set up before you need it can give you peace of mind, directing what you want to happen to your estate after you die.

So, if you are a parent and don’t have a will or trust, or if you’re an adult child and your parent doesn’t have one, it’s a good idea to start now, keep the documents updated, and make sure someone you trust knows how to find them.

Here are a few more tips for parents and their adult children:

Be intentional. A discussion about death is never easy, but it’s necessary. Parents of adult children should make it a point to discuss end-of-life matters with their grown children, and everyone needs to be ready to have a serious discussion while the elderly parent is still able to make good decisions. Include all children or heirs in the discussion. Discuss the will, funeral arrangements, what happens to family heirlooms and anything else. Put everything in writing.

Be grown-up. This isn’t a time to dredge up old family arguments, but it is a time to be open and honest about how you feel about things and to get some planning done. Although the parent-child relationship is complicated, an adult discussion needs to take place; important decisions should be made.

Forbes has a good article on this subject. In it, the author lists four main areas for discussion:

Legal: Have they done estate planning? Who is their attorney? What legal documents do they have in their possession? Is there a will, trust, durable power of attorney for finances and health care directive? May you speak with the attorney?

Health care: What medical insurance do they have besides Medicare? What is covered? Is there long-term care insurance? Do they have assets set aside to pay for care at home should they need it one day? What amount is available? May you have permission to speak with doctors?

Income and expenses: What income do they have, and what are their debts and expenses each month? Where are the records for these? Do they have a financial planner? May you have permission to contact that person?

Financial records: Where do they keep their tax returns? Who prepares them? Where are their bank accounts, brokerage accounts and other records of assets maintained? Do they bank online? Where do they keep their user names and passwords?

While dealing with the loss of a parent will be one of the most difficult times in our lives, having difficult questions already answered will mean one less thing to worry about.

Know your rights when making funeral arrangements

via Know your rights when making funeral arrangements, on clarionledger.com

It’s not a pleasant experience for anyone, but at some point, most of us will have to go through the process of making final arrangements, either for ourselves or someone we love. Many people find themselves overwhelmed by the process, and making big decisions when dealing with all the emotions surrounding a loss can make you prone to mistakes.

It doesn’t help that the average funeral — and all the things that go along with it — amount to a major financial investment. The National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) reports that the average cost of final arrangements increased tenfold from around $700 in 1960 to more than $7,000 in 2012 (add another average of $1,200 for a vault), leading to the potential for bad decisions or even having someone take advantage. Therefore, it’s a good idea to educate ourselves before we have to make those decisions. Some of our rights are protected by what’s known as The Funeral Rule, enforced by the Federal Trade Commission.

The Funeral Rule gives you the following rights:

  • You only have to buy the arrangements you want. It’s your right buy your goods and services separately, and you don’t have to purchase a “package” that includes items you don’t want.
  • You can get prices on the telephone. Funeral directors must give you price information on the telephone if you ask for it. You don’t have to give them your name, address or telephone number first. Although they are not required to do so, many funeral homes mail their price lists, and some post them online.
  • You can get a price list at the funeral home. The funeral home must give you a General Price List (GPL) that is yours to keep. It lists all the items and services the home offers, and the cost of each one.
  • You can see written casket prices before you see them. That way, you can make a sound financial decision without being potentially swayed by an attractive display.
  • You can see a written outer burial container price list. Outer burial containers (vaults) are not required by state law anywhere in the United States, but many cemeteries require them to prevent the grave from caving in. If the funeral home sells containers, but doesn’t list their prices on the GPL, you have the right to look at a separate container price list before you see the containers. If you don’t see the lower-priced containers listed, ask about them.
  • You should receive a written statement after you decide what you want, and before you pay. It should show exactly what you are buying and the cost of each item. The funeral home must give you a statement listing every good and service you have selected, the price of each, and the total cost immediately after you make the arrangements.
  • You’re entitled to get a written explanation describing any legal cemetery or crematory requirement that requires you to buy any funeral goods or services.
  • You can use an “alternative container” instead of a casket for cremation. No state or local law requires the use of a casket for cremation. A funeral home that offers cremations must tell you that alternative containers are available, and must make them available. They might be made of unfinished wood, pressed wood, fiberboard, or cardboard.
  • You may provide the funeral home with a casket or urn you buy elsewhere. The funeral provider cannot refuse to handle a casket or urn you bought online, at a local casket store, or somewhere else — or charge you a fee to do it. The funeral home cannot require you to be there when the casket or urn is delivered to them.
  • Embalming may not be required. No state law requires routine embalming for every death. In Mississippi, a body must be embalmed or refrigerated if “final disposition” does not occur within 48 hours of death, or if it will be “transported within or outside of the state and the destination can’t be reached within 24 hours of the death.” In most cases, refrigeration is an acceptable alternative. In addition, you may choose services like direct cremation and immediate burial, which don’t require any form of preservation. Ask if the funeral home offers private family viewing without embalming. If some form of preservation is a practical necessity, ask the funeral home if refrigeration is available.

Pre-Need Services

Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann’s office is responsible for the oversight of “pre-need” funeral plans, by which you can make your own arrangements ahead of time and save your family the process. By using pre-need services, you can specify all the details, and pay for it in advance.

Unfortunately, consumers can lose out when pre-need funeral funds are misspent or misappropriated. Back in 2009, Hosemann pursued charges against eight Mississippi pre-need providers because they had depleted funds which had been deposited by customers to pay for services.

Hosemann’s office has this advice when buying pre-need services:

  • Ask questions before you buy. Do not buy any plan that doesn’t specify exactly what you will receive. State law requires the contract to be specific regarding the range of services and the quality/grade of merchandise you are purchasing.
  • Look for specific descriptions of your purchases on the contract regarding the manufacturer or model description of what you are buying. Generic descriptions such as “casket” or “vault” are not acceptable.
  • Know whether the plan is “inflation-proof,” and look for assurances that the services will be covered regardless of how costs change.
  • Ask to see a copy of their registration with the Secretary of State’s Office, and their registration number.
  • Ask if their pre-need registration has ever been suspended or revoked by the Secretary of State’s Office.

Scammers hit rock bottom; now sending fake “funeral notices”

Scammers will stop at nothing to try to separate people from their money and identities. Now comes a new champion of low-class scam activity: the funeral-home notice.

In the most recent iteration of “malware” scams, hackers are sending bogus emails with the subject line “funeral notification,” according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). “The message appears to be from a legitimate funeral home, offers condolences, and invites you to click on a link for more information about the upcoming ‘celebration of your friend’s life service,’ says the FTC. “But instead of sending you to the funeral home’s website, the link downloads malware to your computer.”

Malware “phishing” tricks people into clicking on bogus software sites where their computers are infected with damaging viruses, key logging programs, or other devious code.

For more information, visit the FTC’s post here. To file a complaint, go the FTC’s online Complaint Assistant or call 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357).

(Originally published by the Clarion-Ledger on 2/12/14.)