Lawmaker's bill would toughen penalties for funeral fraud
by Tim Lockette
tlockette@annistonstar.com
Jan 12, 2014 | 3621 views |  0 comments | 32 32 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Headstones at Edgemont Cemetery in Anniston. (Photo by Bill Wilson/The Anniston Star)
Headstones at Edgemont Cemetery in Anniston. (Photo by Bill Wilson/The Anniston Star)
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MONTGOMERY — A Jacksonville lawmaker wants tougher penalties for funeral home directors who play fast and loose with clients' money, though some funeral home directors say the proposal may go too far.

Rep. K.L. Brown, R-Jacksonville, filed a bill last week that would expand state oversight of pre-need funeral arrangements — funerals paid for in advance, sometimes decades before the purchaser dies.

"I think it's a good consumer protection bill," said Brown, who is himself the owner of two funeral homes in Calhoun County.

Brown said it's rare for funeral home directors to sell pre-need funerals and never provide a product. But it does happen, he said.

Brown's bill would require funeral home directors, when they sell a pre-need funeral, to put the money into a trust within 30 days. It would expand the state's power to audit funeral homes to make sure they comply. And it would make mismanagement of that money a felony. It's currently a misdemeanor.

"If I had to tell you what was the most important part of this bill, it would be that the Department of Insurance has the power to audit any cemetery that isn't city-owned or church-owned," he said.

A loophole in current law, he said, allows the state to audit only funeral homes and cemeteries that have been authorized to sell pre-need funerals. The worst practitioners, he said, are usually the funeral homes that sell pre-need funerals without state permission.

Brown proposed a similar bill last year, but it died in committee on the last day of the session. Tim Claiborne, president of Mobile Memorial Gardens, said he went to Montgomery to campaign against the bill's passage.

"I'm not one that, unless there's a reason, believes there should be more regulation," he said.

Claiborne runs a nonprofit, 200-acre cemetery in Mobile. Last year he argued that as a nonprofit, his organization should be exempt from the law. Claiborne said he also opposes a provision in the bill that makes failure to put money in a trust a more serious crime if the amount totals more than $2,500.

He said $2,500 is a relatively small transaction for a large cemetery, and every transaction carries a risk.

"If I don't deposit my money properly and they rule it's intentional, it's a felony," he noted.

Brown said he's not sure he'll be able to win Claiborne over this year.

"I think he just doesn't want to be regulated at all," Brown said.

Still, Brown said he thinks the bill has a reasonable chance of passing in the coming legislative session. He said he’s gained the support of a committee chair whose vote blocked the bill last year.

Leaders in the Legislature have said they'd like to conclude the session quickly this year, and Brown said it's likely he'll know the bill's fate soon.

"I would think in the first two or three weeks, we'd see it come out of committee," he said.

The legislative session begins Tuesday.

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

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