PINEVILLE, N.C. -- If you're thinking about pre-paying for your funeral to help your family avoid a hassle during a difficult time, you might consider that time-tested consumer warning: buyer beware.
Consider the experience of Debby Harwell. Her mother, Virginia Brinton, died this September at age 89. To make it easier for her children, Brinton spent $1,900 in 1998 on a "pre-need" contract for her own cremation. But Debby and her family didn't know about the contract until they cleaned out a filing cabinet after the funeral and cremation.
The family contacted the issuer of the contract, Crown Memorial Park, a cemetery in Pineville, NC. But since the contract demanded that the family use Crown Memorial Park's contracted crematorium, Harwell and her family had to pay again for a cremation.
"She said 'Nope.' She was sorry we couldn't have a refund," Harwell said.
The contract spelled out that it was "non-cancelable" and there would be no refunds.
"So we're just going to lose this money?" Harwell asked.
Harwell complained to the North Carolina Board of Funeral Services. She was complaint number 25 against Crown Memorial Park. They date back for years.
The NBC Charlotte I-Team investigated complaints of high-pressure sales tactics and a refusal to offer refunds eight years ago. One customer who tried to cancel her pre-need contract within a day of signing it spoke of "a lot of correspondence, a lot of frustration, a lot of stress."
Crown Memorial Park had spammed mailboxes with a kind of sweepstakes, sending keys through the mail with the promise that if your key fit a lock at their sales office, you could win a Chevy Blazer.
"The odds are relatively gigantic against the key ever showing up," manager Rick Young III told the I-Team at the time. Our background check found that Young had been convicted of a financial crime and sent to prison. "It certainly doesn't make me a dishonest person," Young said in an interview at the time.
In 2004 the Funeral Board took Crown Memorial Park to court, ruling that Crown was selling "pre-need" contracts without a license. After losing on appeal, Crown ceased the practice.
"They were taking deposits from the families and doing with them, I'm not quite sure what," said Peter Burke, now the director of the NC Funeral Board. Burke said the only recourse for customers like Debby Harwell is to "pursue civil recourse" -- go to court.
But Harwell said it would cost more to hire an attorney than the $1,900 she could get back.
"That may well be the case," said Burke. "There's always the option of a class action suit that may take effect if enough people are aware of the situation then -- they could band together."
Crown Memorial Park has shut down an affiliated funeral home, stopped sending out the sweepstakes-style promotions as junk mail and hired a new management company which still sells "pre-need" contracts for burial sites at the Pineville cemetery.
Harwell said she was told she could transfer her mother's contract to another family member and use it for a burial plot, urn or cremation.
"There's nobody who wants to be cremated right now," she laughed.
A manager at Crown Memorial Park said they are honoring the letter of the contract but the cemetery is not legally required to pay another crematorium -- even though the cost was hundreds of dollars less than what Virginia Brinton paid some 14 years ago.
Crown Memorial management referred questions to the management office in Greenville, SC, which did not return calls.
"They've just taken advantage of an older person," said Harwell.
Before you sign a contract for any "pre-need" funeral service, stop and consider three guidelines:
- Talk to your family. Let them know of your wishes and discuss it with them.
- Shop around. Don't succumb to high-pressure sales tactics that could cost you in the long run.
- Contact the Funeral Consumers Alliance. They can frequently find lower prices on caskets or cremations. You can find their phone number here.