Disaster relief: FEMA to pay funeral costs for COVID-19 victims

A nugget buried in the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act is financial reimbursement for funeral and burial expenses for families of COVID-19 victims. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will shell out up to $7,000.00 for those in need.

This relief is a part of the December COVID-19 bill, the same one that included a second stimulus check of up to $600.00, signed by President Trump. The bill includes $2 billion for people who may have gone into debt to pay for the funeral and burial costs of a loved one due to the coronavirus pandemic. This funding was approved in February. On February 8, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez announced the FEMA funding would be coming soon. In April, FEMA will begin accepting applications for the money.

FEMA said it was granted $2 billion from the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act to reimburse people and households for coronavirus-related funeral expenses incurred between Jan. 20 and Dec. 31 of 2020.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has brought overwhelming grief to many families,” the agency wrote in a message on its website. “At FEMA, our mission is to help people before, during and after disasters. We are dedicated to helping ease some of the financial stress and burden caused by the virus.”

As of yesterday, the number of COVID deaths reported in the United States is 536,914. Granted, not all of those deaths are of low-income or struggling middle-class people who may qualify for financial reimbursements. But, it is an indication that the sheer volume of cases will likely lead to a federal program ripe for fraud. At the time of the February announcement, Schumer estimated that New York will receive more than $200 million of that $2 billion, especially to epicenters like Corona, Queens. This is the largest program of its kind launched by FEMA. The CDC has advised FEMA it cannot verify whether individual deaths are COVID-related. FEMA will need to rely on state health agencies and medical institutions to cross-reference federal data with death certificates. FEMA is implementing ways to prevent people from forging death certificates to collect money and also to expose multiple reimbursement claims filed by multiple family members for the same relative.

Fraud and abuse of federal financial aid programs are a given. When the application process opens in April, documentation will be necessary to claim financial relief. Applicants will need to have receipts.

An official death certificate that attributes the death directly or indirectly to COVID-19 and shows that the death occurred in the US, including the US territories and the District of Columbia. (You can get one by contacting the state or county vital records office. Sometimes a funeral home or a third-party provider can also request this for you.)

Funeral expenses documents (receipts, funeral home contract, etc.) that include the applicant’s name, the deceased person’s name, the amount of funeral expenses and the dates the funeral expenses happened.

Proof of funds received from other sources specifically for use toward funeral costs. FEMA is not able to duplicate benefits received from burial or funeral insurance, financial assistance received from voluntary agencies, government agencies or other sources.

The death must be attributed directly or indirectly to COVID-19. That wording is important. Many deaths have occurred during the pandemic not solely due to the coronavirus. And it has often been reported that COVID deaths have been labeled as such only to find out that the patient died due to other causes, the coronavirus may or may not have been a contributing factor. As long as the coronavirus is included in the cause of death, according to the death certificate, then reimbursement will be considered.

This is not the first time FEMA has helped in this way. The Stafford Act allows FEMA to offer financial assistance with funeral costs if the deaths were caused by a presidentially declared disaster. FEMA provided such assistance after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Hurricane Sandy in 2012. In 2017, when three hurricanes hit Florida, Texas, and Puerto Rico, 976 applications were approved for funeral expenses for a total of $2.6M.

“We understand the financial and emotional turmoil COVID-19 has brought to our nation, and we are committed to bringing funeral assistance to the American people as quickly as possible,” a FEMA spokesperson said. “We are working to streamline the delivery of this program to make it easier for people who lost loved ones to apply for and receive assistance. It’s taking some time to develop the right process and tools to make this program easy, efficient and effective for everyone.”

FEMA clarifies that eligible funeral expenses include the purchase of caskets, mortuary services, transportation of the dead, burial plots, and cremation. The funding does not cover the costs of funerals incurred during 2021. Those deemed eligible will receive reimbursement by direct deposit or a check in the mail. One added twist – the applicant must be a U.S. citizen, non-citizen national, or qualified alien but there is no requirement for the deceased person to have been a U.S. citizen, non-citizen national, or qualified alien. As long as the person died in the U.S., a territory, or Washington, D.C., a family member may apply.

Additional details will be released when they become available. The process for applications is still under construction.