Hundreds of thousands of families who've lost someone to COVID-19 are eligible for some financial relief for funeral expenses.
Starting this week, the Federal Emergency Management Agency will open applications for COVID-19-related funeral assistance. Eligible people can apply to recover up to $9,000 of qualifying funeral or burial expenses incurred after Jan. 20, 2020. Families with multiple deaths can recoup up to $35,000.
The program is part of the latest COVID-19 relief bill.
"At FEMA, our mission is to help people before, during and after disasters," acting FEMA Administrator Bob Fenton said in a prepared statement. "The COVID-19 pandemic has caused immense grief for so many people. Although we cannot change what has happened, we affirm our commitment to help with funeral and burial expenses that many families did not anticipate."
To file a claim, you need to call a toll-free hotline set up by FEMA. The phone line – 844-684-6333 – opened at 9 a.m. Monday and will remain open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday. Those who use a teletypewriter device can dial 800-462-7585.
The initial application process is being done by phone, rather than through email or fax, to make it more personal for grieving families, said John L. Arnold, president of Arnold Funeral Homes, which has locations in Canton and Hartville.
Before you call, you'll want to gather some information and make sure you're eligible.
Someone is eligible to recoup expenses if:
The death occurred in the U.S.
The death certificate says that COVID-19 attributed to the death.
The applicant is a U.S. citizen, noncitizen national or qualified immigrant who incurred funeral expenses after Jan. 20, 2020. The deceased does not have to meet those requirements.
You'll also want to gather information about any expenses you've incurred, including:
A copy of the death certificate that says the death was related to COVID-19 and occurred in the U.S.
Proof of any funeral-related expenses such as receipts or a funeral home contract. Those documents should have the name of the deceased, the name of the applicant, the amount incurred, and the dates of those expenses.
Proof of any outside funds that went to those expenses. According to FEMA, funeral assistance won't duplicate funds received from some sources including burial or funeral insurance – not life insurance – or assistance from from voluntary agencies, government programs or agencies, or other sources.
Once you have an application open and documents gathered, you'll be asked to submit them by mail, fax or at disasterassistance.gov.
Payments will be made through check or direct deposit.
FEMA is already warning families to watch out for funeral assistance scams. FEMA will not contact people until they've called to open an application. The agency warned that people should never disclose private information including the name, birth date or Social Security number of any deceased family member to any unsolicited phone call or email.
You can report scams to local law enforcement or call the FEMA Helpline at 800-621-3362 or the National Center for Fraud Hotline at 866-720-5721.
No one is ever really prepared for someone to die, but death during the pandemic came at a particularly difficult time when many were also dealing with the economic fallout of COVID-19, said Nancy Castellucci, a funeral director at Cassaday-Turkle-Christian Funeral and Cremation Service in Alliance and regional director of the Ohio Funeral Directors Association.
Funeral expenses can vary, depending on the type of service and burial.
The average cremation and burial runs about $3,000 to $5,000, and burial with a casket about $7,000 to $10,000, Arnold said, noting that those costs can fluctuate significantly.
"(The FEMA reimbursement) most certainly would cover the lion's share of everything for everybody," he said.
Funeral costs can be quite substantial and many don't consider the cost of expenses such as obituaries, flowers, headstones and ministry services, Castelluci said. "All of those items add up."
Funeral homes keep a record of all those expenses, as well as death certificates, and should have them readily available, Arnold said.
But families have to take the first step. Funeral directors can't apply on behalf of clients. "We'll help them any way we can, but we can't make the phone call for them," Arnold said.