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New law guards funeral wishes

Area funeral homes say a new state law regulating “pre-need”funeral contracts will have little impact on them.

The law, which took effect July 1, guarantees that pre-needfuneral contracts will be honored as they were planned, withoutchanges, to safeguard against unscrupulous relatives.

“It doesn’t affect us,” said Lance Smith, a funeral director atBrookhaven Funeral Home. “It’s only happened here once in the past10 years.”

Secretary of State Eric Clark, who helped push the law throughthe Legislature, said the rights of people paying for their funeralin advance will be better protected.

“If Mississippians choose to pay for a funeral in advance, theyhave the right to know that the services they paid for will beprovided as planned,” he said in a prepared statement. “We’vereceived reports of cases where relatives of the deceased cashed inprepaid funeral plans and demanded a cheaper funeral so they couldpocket much of the prepayments. Starting July 1, that disgracefulpractice will be against the law.”

Under a previously existing pre-need funeral law, Clark’s officeregisters all businesses selling such contracts.

The new law adds that “any pre-need contract which is executedby the decedent for his own arrangements and is fully fundedoverrules, following the decedent’s death, the conflicting wishesof the decendant’s next of kin, unless a compelling public interestmakes it impossible to comply with the decedent’s directions.”

Patty Williams of Williams’ Mortuary said she agreed with thenew law but she had never faced that type of situation before thelaw went effect.

“I’ve never had that to occur,” she said. “I’ve never had afamily try to change it to something lesser.”

The new law does add a stronger foundation to the pre-needcontract, Williams said.

“That’s the reason people do the pre-need contract – to get theservices they want” she said. “It’s a contract like any othercontract, and, therefore, it is binding and irrevocable”

The new law guarantees the terms of the contract upon fullpayment, but the policy can be changed by the buyer until his orher death, she said.

Relatives arranging the funeral still do have some leeway inmaking arrangements in cases where the contract has not beencompletely paid for, according to funeral directors.

For instance, if only $9,000 was paid on a $12,000 contract,relatives could cut some costs to bring the price of the funeraldown to the amount paid on the contract, they said.

Clark said he would like to see the pre-need laws furtherstrengthened to provide better protection to consumers.

Under the old law, at least 50 percent of the money paid inadvance for funeral services had to be kept in trust to ensurethose services were provided. Clark has suggested setting aside anamount closer to the full cost in trust to ensure that services areprovided as they were planned by the consumer.

It was possible under the old law, he said, for consumers to bewithout a funeral if the business supplying the pre-need contractgoes bankrupt.

“We’ve improved our laws on pre-need funeral contracts thisyear, but we need to do more to better protect Mississippians,”Clark said.

Robert Tyler of R.E. Tyler Funeral Home said he is in fullagreement with Clark and already has a policy to that effect.

“You can usually use up to 50 percent of that (trust) money, butwe keep 100 percent of ours in trust,” he said.

The policy ensures his customers will get what they paid for. Bykeeping 100 percent of the contract payments in trust, he said, thefuneral home will not be short on funds to meet its obligationsduring a budget crunch if a pre-need customer were to die.

Most funeral homes offer pre-need contracts to customers. Theyare usually purchased by those who, upon their death, do not wantto burden their families with the cost of a funeral. They includethe full cost of preparation, burial and services. The contractsalso lock in the price so that future increases in a funeral home’scosts do not affect the final price.