South Carolina lawmakers say it is a refrain they hear too often.
The state Department of Consumer Affairs and law enforcement officers revealed last week they are investigating a former Cheraw funeral home that cost its customers thousands of dollars when it went out of business in October.
Those customers had purchased funeral services in advance, known as “pre-need” arrangements, from Norton’s Funeral Home. The money is supposed to be kept in a trust fund for the family. However, when the business suddenly closed last October, Cheraw Police Chief Jay Brooks said those customers learned their accounts (totaling thousands of dollars each) were empty.
“There are unsavory characters in the funeral profession who were making off with the funds that were paid in for pre-need funerals,” said State Rep. Bill Sandifer (R-Seneca), who runs a funeral home, “I am ashamed of some of the folks in my own profession who have done this.”
Sandifer and other legislators hope a new law will do something about it. While there is nothing nefarious about pre-need contracts, Sandifer says they are concerned about companies that either go out of business or abscond with the funds.
The law headed to the governor’s desk this week would make it a felony offense punishable by up to five years in prison if the customer loses more than $2,000. Currently, it is only a misdemeanor with a $1,000 fine. The new law would also require those funeral homes that sell the preneed arrangements to contribute more into a statewide reserve fund for victims.
“We need to safeguard people,” said Rep. John King (D-Rock Hill), a mortician in the private sector. Sandifer and King worked with another lawmaker from the funeral industry, Rep. Anne Parks (D-Greenwood), to draft the law.
A few years ago, legislators created a reimbursement fund for victims. However, the Department of Consumer Affairs says the current balance is less than $200,000 and is not enough to cover an estimated $370,000 in claims. The bill approved last week would create a license fee (and a renewal fee every two years) for businesses that seek to offer the pre-need arrangements.
King said pre-need arrangements have increased significantly in recent years. “Especially in the African-American community, it is now growing,” he said, “It was taboo for a while to pre-plan your services, but now we’re finding that people aren’t wanting their children to make those arrangements for them.”
Parks said most funeral homes are willing to pay the additional fees. She urges anyone considering a pre-need arrangement to check with the Department of Consumer Affairs and make sure the funeral home is licensed.