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Burial Assistance

Burial Assistance

General Observations

Death and dying are issues typically administered by the states. There are very few federal programs to help with burial as compared with numerous federal programs for eldercare. Only when death is a consequence of participation in a federal program is it covered. For example, assistance for burial is covered by Social Security, the Department of Veterans Affairs for veterans, the Department of Defense for military and minimal support from Medicaid through Medicaid matching funds for states. We will discuss Social Security and Department of Veterans Affairs death benefits first.

States, counties and cities themselves typically offer little assistance for burial unless the deceased is indigent and no funds can be found to pay for cremation or burial. And in many states, the only indigent people who are covered are those who die and the body remains unclaimed. In these cases, local county governments have no recourse but to cover the cost of a cremation. There are some exceptions to this general practice of no support with some states that we will cover further on in this section.

By and large, responsibility for funerals and burial or cremation rests with the family. It is therefore very important when planning for the final years of life to have money set aside or available for death. We will discuss below a number of community support options for those who do not prepare. In general, very few community or government assistance programs will pay for a burial. Cremation is generally the rule. A funeral service is optional for the family but typically not paid for with assistance funds. Finally, at the end of this section, we will cover the assistance offered by states, counties and cities.

Social Security Death Benefit

You may receive a one time payment of $255 when a family member dies, depending on your relationship to them and how long they have worked. Generally, only surviving spouses and children of deceased workers qualify for the one-time death benefit. In addition, the deceased family member must have worked long enough to be insured under Social Security, but it doesn't matter if they were already collecting Social Security or not.

The death benefit payment is made to the surviving spouse living with the deceased person at the time he/she passed, or if there is no surviving spouse, the payment is made to a child of the deceased person. Spouses who are not living together when one spouse dies may still receive the death benefit if they were eligible for benefits on the deceased spouse's earnings in the month the spouse passed. If there is no surviving spouse or child who qualifies for the payment, then no payment will be made.

This is a one-time, lump sum benefit; however some survivors may qualify for a monthly benefit in addition to the one-time death benefit. You must apply for the lump-sum death benefit within two years of the family member's death.

In addition to the one-time payment, certain family members may receive a monthly benefit for a deceased person. For widows or widowers without dependents, this amounts to receiving the larger of the two social security benefits if both were receiving benefits or receiving the deceased person's benefits if the survivor was not receiving any. The following family members may qualify for Social Security survivor benefits:

  • a widow or widower, beginning at age 50 if disabled or 60 is not disabled;
  • a widow or widower who is caring for your child under the age of 16, regardless of the age of the widow or widower,
  • unmarried children of the deceased also qualify if they are under age 18 (or age 22 if they are disabled).
  • in some cases, even grandchildren, step children or adopted children may qualify for survivor benefits.

If you are divorced, you may qualify for survivor benefits on an ex-spouse if you were married for at least 10 years, and you are age 60 or older when your ex-spouse passes (you only need to be age 50 if you are disabled).

You should notify Social Security and apply for Social Security benefits right away after a family member has passed. To do so, you can call the Social Security Administration or visit the closest office to you. You will need to provide proof of death (death certificate or proof from a funeral home), your Social Security number and your deceased family member's Social Security number, your birth certificate, marriage certificate if married, divorce papers if you are divorced, and income information for the deceased family member (from W-2s or income tax returns) for the most recent year

Department Of Veterans Affairs Burial Benefits

Death Due to Service-Connected Disability
A veteran who whose death was directly or indirectly caused by a service-connected disability is entitled to a burial allowance for the total cost of the funeral, burial, and transportation, or $2,000, whichever is less. An additional separate amount is payable for transportation, if the veteran is buried in a National Cemetery. The additional amount is based on the place of death of the veteran to the nearest National Cemetery. There is no time limit for filing for the burial or transportation allowances due to service-connected death.

Death is NOT a Result of Service-Connected Disability
VA will pay up to $762 toward burial and funeral expenses for deaths on or after October 1, 2017 (if hospitalized by VA at time of death), or $300 toward burial and funeral expenses (if not hospitalized by VA at time of death), and a $762 plot-interment allowance (if not buried in a national cemetery

An annual increase in burial and plot allowances for deaths occurring after October 1, 2011 began in fiscal year 2013 based on the Consumer Price Index for the preceding 12-month period. Meeting any one of the following requirements will qualify the deceased veteran for the non-service-connected burial and plot allowances:

1. The veteran was in receipt of compensation or pension, or was entitled to either benefit but for waiver of military retired pay.
2. The veteran, at the time of his or her death, had a claim pending for compensation or pension that would have entitled him or her to payment.
3. The veteran served during a period of war and the body is unclaimed.
4. The veteran died while hospitalized at a DVA Medical Center or while receiving care at a non-DVA medical facility under contract.
5. The veteran died while traveling under DVA authorization and expense to or from a specified place for examination, treatment, or care.
6. After October 6, 1996, the veteran died while a patient at an approved state nursing home.

If the veteran was indigent or the body is unclaimed, a written certification, signed by a responsible official of the state or subdivision where the body is held, is needed stating that the veteran had no known next of kin or other person to claim the body, and that the veteran's estate does not have sufficient funds to cover the expenses of funeral and burial.

Some Burial Cost-Saving Ideas to Think about

  • Most counties have a Pauper Burial Program. You may want to check with your county to see.
  • A graveside service only or cremation usually costs between $1,000 and $2,000.
  • Consider purchasing the coffin or urn through a private provider rather than a funeral home which will also cut back on expenses.
  • Ask for an itemized price list as this is required by federal law, and make sure the family understands exactly what it includes.
  • Request the funeral director or newspaper to include a line in the obituary that says, "In lieu of flowers, please send donations to help the family with funeral expenses to.. ." (whoever the person is designated to oversee the account. The donations can be sent directly to the funeral home's business office. Checks should be made out to the funeral account of the victim).
  • Get the community to help. Request that a special offering be taken at the local church of the deceased. Host a spaghetti supper and ask that community members come out and donate to the funeral fund for the deceased's family. Put posters in local stores and a public notice in the newspaper advertising the supper.
  • Write a letter to various service organizations in your state and community. Explain what the family is going through and ask for donations to help them with the funeral. Nonprofits and clubs may have funds set aside for this purpose. Be sure to include the donation bank account or funeral home address, the deceased's billing account number and any pertinent information.
  • Most states have a crime victim's compensation fund that can provide financial assistance in cases of domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking related homicides. Some of these programs only offer reimbursement so be sure to be clear when seeking help from these programs about what type of assistance they provide.
  • Most counties provide resources for a person who does not have money or means necessary to defray funeral expenses. Usually, in these cases, the county will provide for the burial. These often have low income levels which must be met in order to qualify. The county treasurer's office usually has these resources or where to locate this information.
  • You can also contact your local funeral association or memorial society for additional financial help.

Disaster Associated Burial Benefit

The most tragic disaster-related loss imaginable is that of a loved one. Under the Individuals and Households Program's (IHP) Other Needs Assistance (ONA) provision, an applicant may qualify for certain eligible funeral expenses.

FEMA Funeral Assistance is provided to help with the cost of unexpected and uninsured expenses associated with the death of an immediate family member when attributed to an event that is declared to be a major disaster or emergency. Eligible funeral expenses may include:

  • Cost of casket
  • Mortuary services
  • Transportation of the deceased and/or up to two family members into the area to identify the decedent (if required by state/local authorities)
  • Two Death Certificates
  • Burial plot
  • Interment or cremation
  • Cost of re-interment if disinterment is a) caused by the declared disaster, and b) occurs in a family cemetery on private property
  • Eligibility Criteria

Typically, federal and state personnel at the FEMA Joint Field Office review the supporting documentation from the applicant and payments are approved by the Federal Coordinating Officer (FCO) or designee and his/her state counterpart.

To be eligible for funeral assistance, applicants must provide:

  • A death certificate for the decedent
  • Documentation from a designated, authoritative state or local entity (attending physician, Medical Examiner's office, or Coroner's Office as appropriate) that attributes death or the injury causing death to the declared emergency or major disaster
  • Proof that the applicant is the official "next of kin" as defined by the appropriate state or local authority
  • Confirmation that funeral expenses have not been paid for by other resources (Social Security and Veterans Affairs benefits, for example, would duplicate Funeral Assistance and would be subtracted from an award)
  • Evidence of an unmet funeral expense (a receipt from a service provider)
  • Ineligible Costs

Not all applicants reporting funeral expenses will be eligible for Funeral Assistance. Some common reasons for ineligibility include:

  • The death was not attributed to the declared incident
  • Funeral expenses are fully covered by other sources of assistance
  • Insufficient and/or incomplete documentation
  • If disinterment was the result of the disaster, FEMA will provide Funeral Assistance only for a disinterred coffin under the following conditions:
  • The unearthed coffin(s) were located in a family cemetery on their private property
  • The coffin(s) were removed from the ground by the declared disaster

Private Sector and Community Programs for Burial

There are a number of ways where the private sector and certain community groups or church denominations will cover a burial and possibly a funeral. When we talk about burial, we may mean a cremation offered as a public service from one of these organizations or groups.

Taxpayer Benefits Local taxpayers in many cities and counties qualify for reduced interment costs in cemeteries.

Church Members and Members of Civic Organizations Benefits Church members and members of civic and other organizations may qualify for funeral assistance or for reduced costs. Some church denominations will also provide burial for their members in the church cemetery. This is principally for Greek Orthodox, Jewish and Catholic faiths but may include other faiths as well.

Crime Victims' Compensation Fund A Crime Victims' Fund often provides funeral benefits in instances of death by a criminal act. There are many crime victim funds across the United States. Most are funded by the state or county. Ask the prosecutors office in your area or do a computer search using the name of your county or city and the term "crime victim fund".

Death Benefits from Pensions, Societies and Other Organizations Organizations affiliated with some professions, such as the Railroad Retirement Board, as well as some social groups, unions and pensions, offer allowances to defray funeral costs. Some organizations and pension funds include an automatic group life insurance policy on their members. This may include unions and other fraternal organizations as well as veterans service organizations. These may be small amounts of coverage such as $1,000, but adding up benefits from a number of sources might produce enough for a burial or cremation. Here are some examples of funds that will defray costs.

  • Workman's compensation, if death was work-related,
  • Civil service (federal, state, county or local) retirement pension fund,
  • Federal Employees Life Insurance (Includes a lifetime benefit even after retirement)
  • Railroad fund,
  • Teacher's fund,
  • Miner's benefits fund,
  • Trade union fund,
  • Credit union fund,
  • Fraternal organizations fund.

Discounts or Gratis Services from Funeral Homes
For families who simply cannot come up with enough money to bury a loved one, funeral homes may be surprisingly accommodating. Even though they may not advertise it, funeral homes may offer charity for a number of people in the community when no other way to bury a loved one is possible. This might include steep discounts, extended monthly payment plans, extremely affordable economy plans and possibly even providing the burial -- in this case very likely a cremation -- for free.

State and County Burial Programs

In all states if someone dies and the body is unclaimed, the county in which the body was discovered becomes responsible for interment. In most cases, this usually involves a cremation as the least expensive option.

Here are some examples of the frustration of what to do with people who die and have no means for burial.

William R. Gardner recently kept an elderly woman's body at his funeral home in Portsmouth for more than a month. County coroners say it's not unusual to hold bodies that families don't claim because they cannot afford a funeral. She came from a nursing home with no money and no known family. After weeks of searching, one of Gardner's directors found a relative, but the person couldn't afford to, or didn't want to, pay to dispose of the remains.

"We're talking to family members and friends who are at the end of their rope" in trying to find help to pay for a proper burial for a loved one, says Deputy County Clerk Barbara Fowler of Cumberland County, one of the poorest in New Jersey.

In North Carolina, the state leaves the assistance to the counties, which pay only if the body is unclaimed; otherwise, the funeral home or crematory often must absorb the cost, said Paul Harris, executive director of the North Carolina Board of Funeral Service. Medicaid will often pick up the tab for Medicaid recipients, but many people will have around $2,000 remaining in a bank account from spend down to cover this. Temporary assistance for families in need will also typically pick up the tab.

A baby girl was stillborn on April 18, 2009, at Sentara Leigh Hospital. The police investigated and an autopsy was done. A funeral home kept the body while the sheriff's office exhausted its options.

In August, the baby's mother signed a release form saying she was unable to make final disposition arrangements for her daughter. The medical examiner's office said the remains were not suitable for scientific study in the State Anatomical Program.

In September, a judge ordered that the body be properly disposed of in accordance with state law, at the city's expense. In a case like that, taxpayers pick up the tab.

State Programs

Many states have formal programs that provide burial and even funerals under certain circumstances. With formal programs, more money than that used for an unclaimed body can be expended to provide a casket, a proper burial and maybe even a funeral for people with no other means.

Some of the more lucrative formal plans from states are coming under attack and getting funds reduced or eliminated because of the great recession and shrinking budgets. Kansas is one example where there was a state program but there is none now. West Virginia recently ran out of money for its program and the District of Columbia has suspended its program. Perhaps many more states are currently in the process of doing away with formal state or county programs.