What price peace of mind?

It’s been another very bad day at the office for the financial product known as the funeral plan, demonstrating its attractiveness to cheats and scammers. Sooner or later some devious little twerp is going to do a runner with a shedful. Some reckon they know who that twerp is. 

Yorkshire Asset Protection, a financial services firm offering ‘specialist advice’ and ‘bespoke solutions’ for people’s estate planning needs, has folded, leaving widow Lynda Madden £6,500 out of pocket. What she and her husband were told were Golden Charter funeral plans turned out to be nothing of the sort. 

Read the whole sad story here

Meanwhile, allegations concerning the growing power of Golden Charter (the real Golden Charter) as funerals’ broker is something we’re increasingly aware of here at the GFG. Funeral directors write in to sound off. A typical account arrived a couple of days ago.  A funeral director who is not signed up exclusively to Golden Charter tells us he was offered £1958 to arrange a funeral which, had he been exclusively signed up, would have yielded him £2686. He says the family had paid over £3000 for the plan, which included provision for a willow coffin. 

Why shouldn’t a £3K plan buy you a £3K funeral? I put this case to Golden Charter and was told that the company rewards those who support it and help it grow the business — why should FDs who don’t commit to it benefit from the hard work and commitment of others? 

I also took the opportunity to ask Golden Charter about its telesales operation in the light of  reported case where a vulnerable old person was distressed by what she felt were pressure sales tactics. I was told that any report of anything other than ethical conduct by a telesales operative would be dealt with swiftly and surgically. 

Golden Charter has invited me, in a spirit of openness, to go and see them at their HQ in Glasgow to lay before them all the concerns that consumers might have about its funeral plans, and I am minded to accept the invitation. If there’s anything you would like me to ask them, please let me know. Drop me an email or leave a comment. 


Funeral plans and the ‘peace of mind’ delusion

It may be that the media are beginning to wake up to the inadequacies of pay-now-die-later funeral plans. The Times has a piece today which, chances are, you won’t be able to read online because you haven’t got a key to the paywall. So I’ll summarise. 

It highlights third-party costs that funeral plans generally do not cover — costs which cluster under the umbrella known formerly as ‘disbursements’ until the Dismal Trade cottoned on to the fact that no one outside the Trade uses the word ‘disbursements’; it may sound like a good and impressive word but is effectively Double Dutch. Undertakers: please stop using it. From now on, talk only of third-party costs. 

Funeral plan providers actually make it pretty clear what costs are covered and what costs aren’t, so there’s little excuse for surprises when the undertaker’s account flops through the letterbox — or, rather, there is no excuse for the person who has died not to have made provision for these costs in another way – by popping a grand into an Isa, for example. Buyers seem to be blinded by the peace-of-mind message common to all providers. We are disappointed to note that the Funeral Planning Services Liberty plan claims on its home page: 

With a Liberty funeral plan you can both choose your own funeral arrangements for your own peace of mind, and freeze Funeral Directors’ costs at today’s prices, saving your family from having to make difficult emotional and financial decisions in the future, and only on the Details page comes clean and makes you aware of: Option to contribute towards third party costs such as crematorium, doctors & clergy fees

Less justifiable is the sales trick used to stampede people into buying a plan. Yes, the cost of dying is rising by around 7 per cent per year. But most of this increase is not in undertakers’ costs, it is in the fees payable to third parties (once known as disbursements). 

The Times article has a swipe at Age UK, the ‘charity’ which, as we have had cause to deplore often, here, *flogs Dignity plans to trusting elderly folk. The Times correctly observes that these Age UK plans “tie families in to using an approved funeral director rather than a local, often cheaper, independent undertaker.” The ‘approved’ funeral director may well be based some distance from the person who has died. 

The Times piece correctly notes that funeral plans are not regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority. 

The article concludes with a case study that’ll make your lip curl: 

Ros Rhodes, 70, was shocked to receive a bill for more than £1,000 for her mother’s funeral, as she believed all costs would be covered by an Age UK funeral plan. Her 89-year-old mother had spent almost £3,000 on the plan 18 months previously.

The extra costs were even more perplexing because the undertaker’s account showed that he had been paid only £2,169 from Age UK — £571 less than her mother had paid the charity.

She says: “I have telephoned and written to Age UK to try and find why there was such a difference in the money paid in and the money paid out. I have been fobbed off with trust funds, expenses, inflation and other such terms that are of no real answer.”

After Age UK was contacted by Times Money it sent Mrs Rhodes a cheque for £750 as a goodwill gesture. The charity said that there had been a mix up with the bill and Mrs Rhodes should not have been charged so much, and also that she should not have seen the breakdown of the funeral director’s expenses. But Ros says had she not seen the breakdown, she would have never have queried the bill.

*The Age UK Guaranteed Funeral Plan is offered by Advance Planning Limited, a company incorporated in England and owned by Dignity Pre Arrangement Limited (a subsidiary of Dignity plc). Registered office: Advance Planning Limited, 4 King Edwards Court, King Edwards Square, Sutton Coldfield, West Midlands B73 6AP. Registered in England, no. 3292336. — Source

Nina Wigglesworth on Pre-Planning

Guest post by Kateyanne Unullisi 

I love dogs. God I love dogs.

And now it’s nearly time for a dog I love to die. Nina, my daughter’s dog. The Golden Retriever puppy she got when newlywed in 2001 is now 13-years-old; and though lumpy and halt, she is ever patient and tender with their three young children.

This could go many ways. I could take it on, in the name of sparing the family more pain. I could leave them to it; after all, I have plenty to deal with myself. Or we could use this sad time as guidance for Death in Our Little Family (dogs included). Because really, it’s been our dogs who have already been showing us the way.

Aiko, my Collie mix, mothered little Nina, who, when she understood she wasn’t to bark at every slight thing, rushed through the house in search of socks. Then she whisper-barked into them, wagging her tail so hard she fell over. That’s why we call her Nina Wigglesworth.

Nina and Aiko, best friends, invented the game ‘Soccer Ball,’ then taught the two-leggeds how to play. Here’s the rules: the humans stand in a great circle and all dogs take themselves to the center (which resulted in bringing all the closed off neighbors out of their houses to play). This included Star, the Border Collie, a clever girl who was aces in assist, Pili the Cocker Spaniel, the look-at-me-I’m-so-cute cheerleader type, and other four-legged transients in for a good game of pickup. A human kicked the soccer ball into the center and the dogs squared off, sometimes in teams, sometimes dog eat dog. First one to touch the ball, regardless of species, won. There was no keeping score.

Did you see the part where the neighbors came out of their houses and got to know one another? The dogs did that.

Aiko – teacher friend dog – died last year. I did that. I made the decision that 15 years and a quit hind end was enough to ask of her, called the vet to our home, and lay by her on the floor as she died. May I carry my sorrow with as much grace as she carried her pain.

And now it’s Nina’s turn. The time has come for my daughter to make this decision herself. She says she just wants to wake up and find Nina dead, to which I say, good luck with that. These dogs love us so, they just won’t leave.

My urge is to get all the planning details sorted: vet, babysitter, crematorium. I will do some of it, since Aiko taught me how. But what kind of elder would I be to disallow Nina and my daughter the grace of learning? Taking on too much just gives them feeble lessons in how to handle the logistics of death.

It may not surprise you as much as it does me, but I’m likely to die too, some day. So mine is a death my kids will also need to attend to – and a few others in their lifetimes as well. When we pre-plan our own end-of-life details without taking our (30 or 40 or 50 year old) kids’ hands and walking them into the funeral home-crematorium-cemetery, we have failed them. Big. This is a teachable moment!

Planning ahead – well, some of it makes sense and some of it doesn’t. Don’t pay ahead – show your kids why – and here’s some damn good reasons if you don’t know. Don’t plan to the letter and take that privilege from them. They need to do that when you die and they’ll do it well, because you showed them how.

This is adventure! Wander the cemetery where your finished body will be buried or hike the high cliffs your ashes will be strewn over. Take along the dog. Start talking. Bring them (what the hell, bring the dog too) to meet with a few funeral directors and show them the difference between a good, a bad and a thievishly ugly undertaker. Kick the caskets, run the numbers, then get the hell out of there and head for a cold pint.

After Nina goes, in the spirit of teaching and in gratitude to our dogs, I will pre-plan my death (supposing I will die someday) by giving my daughters a roadmap, but not the exact itinerary. They can and should work that out themselves. I just hope there’s a pack of dogs there playing a good round of Soccer Ball after all is said and done.

Feasting on brains

Weekends? Ha! We don’t believe in them here at the GFG-Batesville Shard. Probably you don’t, either. Because, like you, I know that the number one regret of the dying is: I wish I had worked harder.

So on Sunday, noticing my bank manager had nodded off in a deckchair, I slipped my fiscal leash and zipped down to Bath for the second day of the annual CDAS conference: New Economies of Death: The Commodification of Dying, the Dead Body, and Bereavement. Snappy title. Forty-five quid, lunch thrown in. Thank you for letting me in at the last minute, Caron!

I’d obviously missed lots of good stuff the day before, because everyone was keen to rub it in. Not to worry, there was lots of good stuff on Sunday, too, much of it from hands-on people like Barbara Chalmers, and Shaun Powell and Lawrence Kilshaw. There were good papers on funeral costs and much talk of funeral poverty. A highlight was a very bright Australian undertaker, Anne Gleeson, who talked about the importance of joining up end-of-life care to the care of the dead body. She and her husband specialise in ‘individualised funerals on farms and wineries, traditional church services, small personal ceremonies in homes and community venues’. This very bespoke way of working doesn’t necessarily endear them to their fellow undertakers, better termed funeral directors. Yes, there’s a difference.

For me, the best bit was the session after lunch. Steve Gallagher, from the Chinese University, Hong Kong, lectures in law and specialises in trusts — an area of law, he told us, reckoned by lawyers themselves to be the most boring of all. He loves it, and managed to communicate that. He told us about Chinese customary trusts in the New Territories, and how they were adopted into the common law of Hong Kong by the British. The main purposes of these trusts are threefold: ancestral veneration; the provision of funeral costs for clan members; and the maintenance of clan graves. The richer trusts cover other expenses of clan members, too – education, for example. They are unique to China and incorporated into law only in Hong Kong. 

What an excellent model, I thought, for British funeral planning. I put it to Steve and he agreed that it would work. He named the English trust that would best suit (I wish I’d written it down). It needs to be renewed every 21 years, giving a family the opportunity to review and remodel. All good.

He reminded us that, when you arrange a funeral in China, you consult not only the wishes and needs of close family and those who knew the dead person but, also, the expectations of the ancestors. That’s quite a weight of responsibility and a considerable enrichment of a funeral. We could do with some of that here. 

There was a good spread of people from all areas of funerals. We all enjoyed swapping ideas, refreshing our thinking and learning new things. The people at CDAS are always very welcoming, and actively encourage ‘civilians’ to attend.

Regrettable, therefore, that not a single funeral director went. The debate about where funerals are going in an age of growing secularism and a rapidly changing landscape of dying is going to go on without them because it’s a debate that masses of people want to take part in and it’s urgent. Ideas are change agents, and the sideline, just now, is no place to stand. 

Sign up for the CDAS newsletter here

Twaddle rating: 6

‘Everyone has a plan til they get punched in the mouth.’ – Mike Tyson

Of all the products dreamt up in the secret, black and midnight minds of financial services sorcerers, the pay-now-die-later funeral plan must rank as one of the rankest. It stinks. It’s idiotic. 

A funeral plan purports to benefit consumers by enabling them to buy tomorrow’s funeral at today’s prices (or thereabouts). But it wasn’t invented to benefit consumers, it was invented to benefit funeral directors. It addresses a problem peculiar to funeral directors. The problem is this: however brilliant you are (and caring, dignified, etc), there’s absolutely nothing you can do to induce more people to die, and you can’t sweet-talk them into doing it more than once.

If you want to steal a march on your competitors, therefore, you need to stitch up tomorrow’s market by bagging the biggest share you can get of it in advance — by taking tomorrow’s clients off the market today. 

What a pity it ever started. As soon as one funeral firm does it, everyone else has to join in, like it or not. There’s even a formula to work to. If your sales of funeral plans are greater than 20 per cent of your sales of at-need funerals, you’re okay. Less, and you’re in doodoo.

The only way you can achieve this increased market share is by offering a product riddled with deficiencies and anomalies. In this, the age of the bespoke, personal funeral offering a high-value emotional and spiritual experience to the bereaved, you offer packages of the crudest, most mechanical sort — it’s the only way to do it. Package one: Crudholme coffin (4 handles), no viewing, hearse straight to crem. Package two: Greyfriars coffin, viewing, hearse and one. Package three — but you know all this.

The problem for funeral directors is that if you ask people to buy a funeral for themselves, they tend to buy the cheapest. What price superb personal service in all this? Zilch. Experiential value to those left behind? Irrelevant. Funeral plans offer nobbut disposal in limited and highly unimaginative cosmetic options. Its appeal is highest to the put-me-out-with-the-rubbish brigade.

The last person you should ever ask to arrange a funeral is the recipient.

Memo to the living: we mustn’t plan our funeral. All we can do is be available for it. Write your funeral wishes in pencil. Hint, don’t prescribe. Die. Butt out. 

There’s a lot more that’s wrong with funeral plans, as you well know.  Money hasn’t grown since 2008 and the economy isn’t recovering. Funeral costs — they double every ten years — are rising faster than RPI. As the battle for tomorrow’s market share becomes more strident and overheated, the battleground is looking more and more like Syria. Plans are coming in underfunded and funeral directors are having to bear the brunt of that (to the incidental benefit of the plan holder). Independent funeral directors are in danger of surrendering their independence, because there’s a real danger that some plan providers will, in desperation, be forced to become funeral brokers, offering work to the lowest bidder. Funeral plans aren’t regulated by the FCA

Never before has there been so much talk of a plan provider going bust. The Ponzi-word is much muttered these days. All the while, new products are coming onto the market, and new providers, and new enhancements, like legal services. It’s getting frenzied. Is there a big bust a-brewing? Consensus says yes.

If one of the plan providers does go bust, what happens? Do the others get together to bail it out? Up to a point, perhaps. If the provider is a member of the Funeral Planning Authority, its members “shall co-operate and examine ways in which the FPA might assist in arranging delivery of the funerals of customers of the insolvent Registered Provider.” If you bought a funeral plan from the heavily despised Avalon, you don’t even get this reassurance. Avalon is not a member of the FPA

No wonder funeral directors, for whom these plans were designed, fear and loathe the bloody things, today more than ever.

Where, you might ask, is the media now that the gelignite is beginning to sweat? Where are the expert, investigative journalists when you need them? Out to lunch. 

Perhaps the best we can hope for is that there will be PPI-style megascandal and we can all start from ground zero with a consumer-focussed funeral plan. 

What would a consumer focussed funeral plan look like?

Well, first of all, it would pay out to the family, not direct to a funeral director. 

Second, there would be change, a sum left over, if an executor decided not to spend it all. (Whoever got change from one of today’s plans?)

Third, the rights of the dead person would assume their rightful legal value — zero — and the bereaved would be empowered. People should get the funerals they deserve, not the funerals they want. We’d get much better funerals as a result. 

Fourth, the sum would not be assigned to any particular family member. If Granddad doesn’t go first because Wayne (17) drives into a tree, Wayne gets it and we top it up for Granddad — or whoever’s next. 

So, fifth, the family funeral fund does not expire with the death of any particular family member, but lives on and is handed down. 

What would be the best repository for a family’s funeral fund? A trust? 

We don’t know, but you probably do. 

Let’s not be daunted. There has to be a better way than the self-reinforcing shambles we have today. 

End of Life Planning Seminar

We are pleased to advertise this upcoming seminar held by Colin Moore, a good friend of the GFG:

End of Life Planning Seminar 
This seminar shows you how to create different funeral ceremonies through powerpoint and exercises. You will learn about the many funeral choices available and how to discuss these options with families. We also give you the information you need to be able to advise people on how to prepare detailed written instructions about every aspect of a death, including the funeral, all practical arrangements and family matters. Time is spent during the day discussing how to craft a letter which is read and often treasured as a lasting legacy by children, grandchildren and beyond.  The aim of the course is to be able to help people prepare their final arrangements in advance, making it much easier for their families when the time comes to say goodbye. 

Course Details
To be held on Friday 18th January 2013 at The Bridgewater Hotel, 23 Barton Road, Worsley, Manchester M28 2PD between 10.0am and 4.0pm.  Cost per delegate including refreshments and handouts £45.00.

Contact Details

Colin Moore at The Funeral Consultancy, 100 Bull Head Street, Wigston, Leicester LE18 1PB.  Telephone:  0116 2813574 or email admin@thefuneralconsultancy.co.uk

Piece of mind for the man with the plan

There’s an unsparing piece in The Times, 11 November, on financial products associated with funeral planning:

Hundreds of thousands of the poorest pensioners are losing thousands of pounds by buying into poor-value funeral planning products offered by some of the most trusted high street names.

Funeral benefit plans offered as add-ons to over-50s life insurance promise to help those aged between 50 and 80 to set aside a pot of money for their families to pay for their funeral … First, the majority of people who invest in over-50s plans end up paying in much more money than their relatives receive in the cash lump sum. Second, in many cases the funeral plan add-ons are assigned to particularly expensive funeral directors, and, finally, the lump sum payouts are not protected against inflation or linked to specific funeral costs so they are likely to cover only a small proportion of the cost of a future funeral.

Sales of over-50s policies rose 25 per cent between 2008 and 2010, with 346,128 people buying policies last year alone. Sun Life Direct, for example, has 750,000 such customers … This type of insurance policy does not have a “cash-in value” so policyholders often find themselves facing the dilemma of whether to continue to lose money paying premiums until they die or close the account and forfeit the cash lump sum.

The funeral benefit option on these products effectively assigns the cash lump sum to a funeral provider with whom it has a commercial deal, usually Dignity or the Co-operative.

Insurers are also pushing policyholders’ families towards funeral directors that charge the highest fees. The two main providers that arrange funerals as part of a funeral benefit add-on are Dignity and the Co-operative.

Dignity and the Co-operative argue that it is worth paying more for their service … A spokesman for Dignity says: “Dignity provides an allinclusive service with no hidden extras.”  A spokesman for the Co-operative says: “The Co-operative provides customers, and their families, with the invaluable peace of mind afforded by planning for their funeral in advance. We believe that, when compared on a like-for- like basis our charges are fair and reasonable and highly competitive for the standard of service that we provide.”

Age UK, an organisation that helps the elderly, has been accused of exploiting its reputation to sell unnecessarily costly funeral plans. A former senior employee of Age Concern is critical of these plans. He believes that Age UK is trading on its good name to sell overpriced products to vulnerable pensioners. He says: “Age UK uses its local branches as a route to a market where it can sell its branded products. Very often it is the less well-off pensioners using day care centres that are sold these products. Age UK funeral plans are particularly poor value because they encourage families to use expensive funeral directors rather than a cheaper local director.”

Age UK’s unholy alliance with Dignity brings in something like £9 million a year. 

The last point the article makes is that funeral plan funds are not regulated by the FSA. Did you know that? Ah, you always assumed they must be. Well, they’re not; they’re regulated by the Funeral Planning Authority — whose shareholders are trade associations for pre-paid funeral plan companies, creating a conflict of interest.

Coming soon: more thoughts about the ticking time bomb of the pre-paid funeral plan. In the meantime, stash it under the mattress. 

End of Life Planning Makes a Difficult Situation Much Easier

Posted by Colin Moore

One of the toughest challenges anyone can face in their lifetime is losing a loved one and then having to guess what kind of funeral and memorial service they would have wanted, also to try to locate important documents and find the answers to key questions.  But it does not have to be this way, by documenting our preferences and important details in advance of need, families can be spared making the difficult decisions of what to do next and avoid all of this uncertainty.

End of Life Planning is about thinking, discussing, planning and documenting the final event in our lives before it actually happens.  It should be a big part and a necessary part of any estate or financial planning service.  We cannot control how we die, but we can control how our finances will be managed, how our estate will be distributed, the sort of funeral we would like and what arrangements or messages we would like to leave behind for our families.

The worst time to plan a funeral is when someone has died.  You only have an average of twenty-four to seventy-two hours to make all the arrangements, while also dealing with the emotional impact of the loss of a loved one.  So, making difficult decisions which cannot be undone when you are overcome with grief is not the best time.

Making an End of Life Plan allows you to make extremely important decisions through a calm and clear thought-out process. In other words, it is much more likely that you will make more rational and logical decisions. This helps to ensure your funeral wishes and other family matters can be arranged in a more meaningful way, and the way you would have wanted.

Most people don’t know how to begin planning for life’s ending.  But for everyone who has made a Will they have already taken a step in the right direction towards pre-planning their future  wishes.  The problem is, this form of planning alone fails to address their family’s immediate concerns between the time of death and and in the crucial days thereafter leading up to the funeral when major financial decisions have to be made.   

The key to effective end-of-life planning is not to race through filling out legal documents but to take the time to understand the full scope of what is involved in putting our entire affairs in order and to seek out solid information on each topical area.  Then we can fully embrace the whole process.

Although an End of Life Plan will not completely alleviate the emotional and financial pressures people will face, it will certainly help them reduce or eliminate many of the most stressful decisions, pressures, and expenses, and ultimately help ease the pain of a very difficult situation.

Colin Moore is founder of The Funeral Consultancy and regularly provides courses and seminars on Caring for The Bereaved and End of Life Planning.

ED’S NOTE: We are huge admirers of Colin here at the GFG. Goodness knows how much money his work has cost him (we know how it feels, Colin!). He is motivated entirely by a desire to be useful and helpful. Do check out his website. He has been tenacious and he has persevered. At long last his work is gaining official recognition in Leicestershire and, what’s more, financial backing from Big Society coffers. Colin, we salute you.  

Sharp rise in Pauper’s funerals

Posted by Vale

You’d be forgiven for thinking that Oliver Twist is in a workhouse somewhere asking for more. It seems extraordinary in 2012 that there are headlines like this in the Daily Telegraph this week, followed by the stark (and slightly ludicrous) quote from Kate Woodthorpe of the University of Bath that it is:

“becoming too expensive for poor people to die”.

The article is based on a joint report between the university and Sun Life Direct and notes that the number of applications rejected for a funeral payment increased by 6.9% and is likely to jump again in the future. Put bluntly funerals are becoming unaffordable for more and more people.

There are issues with the report of course. Sun Life’s interest in shepherding people towards its end of life plans is one. It also includes a great deal of information that deserves more detailed consideration. For the moment though our concern here at GFG has a narrower focus. Let’s go back to the news that, in an age where benefits claimants are routinely stigmatised and welfare support is harder to access, state support for the costs of funerals is shrinking; that the funeral as it is designed, sold and delivered is becoming too expensive for too many; that we are pauperisng people.

As a service (that likes to puff its chest out and call itself an industry) does this news make you feel good about the drive to upsell? Are you comfortable with a lack of transparency about pricing? Do the packages you offer, the lack of flexibility, the way that basic or simple is designed to look mean and cheap fill you with pride?

Are you filled with a drive to change, to build new and more responsive businesses where trustworthy services and products are offered in a culture of respect and openness?

Or do you dust off the top hat and smile to yourselves at the prospect of this new Victorian age?

Not so cunning after all?

Posted by Charles

Money’s fallen on hard times. It’s not breeding like rabbits any more.

What’s bad news for savings has got to be bad news for funeral plans too. 

Pay now, die later was never going to be a good way to go for the funeral trade because when a person buys their own funeral it is generally more modest than that which he or she might buy for someone else. But if you can’t improve your market share today by encouraging more people to die and afterwards give you repeat business, what’s a poor undertaker to do? Tomorrow’s market share it is. Sell ahead, grow the cash, hope it pays you back.

In present low-growth conditions, the longer a plan takes to mature, the more it’s likely to lag behind.

The April edition of the Funeral Service Journal carries a heartsinking analysis by Ronnie Wayte, managing director of Golden Charter. Given low interest rates, these, he says, are the most disturbing factors:

*   Funeral price inflation tends to outstrip RPI. (At the present rate, funeral directors’ costs tend to double every ten years.) Says Wayte: “Put bluntly, parts of our model don’t work in these conditions.” 

*   People are living longer, increasing likely shortfalls.

*   People are buying when they’re younger, extending the maturity period. 

*   Sure, the death rate will rise soon. But the fruits of this will be shared among increased numbers of funeral directors. 

*   “As financial services giants become more involved they will squeeze returns.”

No wonder Wayte concludes by saying “we need to step back, have a good look round and decide in what direction we need to move.”

I’m sure he’d welcome some advice from readers of this blog.