Every now and again, a product appears in the market that is so necessary. It’s exciting, because it actually solves a real problem and is clearly genius as hell. It’s also very frustrating, as you also instinctively know it will be frustrating as hell to use that product because the functionality is just so glaringly absent.
Enter FEMA’s COVID Funeral Assistance Program.
In times like these I vaguely recall the specter of a vintage hot take from a nameless, mid-aughts YouTuber on the 2013 tin foil-as-antennae iPhone controversy. I can’t remember exactly what was said, so I’m paraphrasing, but it went something like: you, the consumer, should not be providing real-time beta testing on “market ready” products. Just don’t do it. Buy-in on the second round, once the early adapters have identified the issues that need fixing.
Makes sense, though I do recognize that we are talking about the government (FEMA, no less), not a meme-worthy engineering fail. So, even in the second, third, and maybe fourth iteration, there will still be issues, but nothing so impactful that it keeps you from the end goal — getting fucking paid!
The good news is that since the program was launched under heavy, and frankly warranted, scrutiny in April of this year, FEMA has made major strides in upgrading their infrastructure. According to a recent article by CNN, as of May 12, 2021, just one month ago, FEMA has tread enough water that they’re slowly beginning to approve and pay-out on a modest percentage of the176,000 applications they had amassed up to that point. FEMA also reported having distributed $17.8 million to qualified families, with claims averaging $6,887 per death .
While it’s not enough to be statistically significant, we can see that this funeral assistance program is providing some actual assistance, which is heartening.
So, now that we know it functions, how do we make it work for us? Let’s explore the application process, what’s required, and its pitfalls. That way, once you’re ready to take the plunge, you can do it with confidence.
How can I apply?
The first step is usually the hardest and this is no different. You must make a phone call (I know, so passé!) to FEMA’s funeral assistance hotline, 844-684-6333. According to the FAQ, the call should last about 20 minutes and you will be provided with an application number. You will then have 90 days to submit all of the required documentation to determine eligibility. I underlined that part because it is important. We will get back to that.
Supporting documentation can be provided to FEMA a few ways:
- Upload to your DisasterAssistance.gov account
- Fax documents: 855-261-3452.
- Mail documents: P.O. BOX 10001, Hyattsville, MD 2078
NOTE: Like I mentioned in our Burial Assistance Guide, these programs are extremely fiddly. You must be diligent to cross every “t,” dot each “i,” and because this is “the government’s money” you can be sure they’ll make you bend over backwards to prove you really need it, so be sure to study the fine print! If you aren’t an organized person, find a friend who is. Read and re-read the requirements before mailing anything in.
How do I know if I am eligible?
To be considered eligible for funeral assistance, you must meet these conditions:
- The death must have occurred in the United States, including the U.S. territories, and the District of Columbia.
- The death certificate must indicate the death was attributed to COVID-19.
- The applicant must be a U.S. citizen, non-citizen national, or qualified alien who incurred funeral expenses after January 20, 2020. However, there is no requirement for the deceased person to have been a U.S. citizen, non-citizen national, or qualified alien.
To this point, there are several categories of aliens lawfully present in the U.S. who are not eligible for FEMA’s Individual and Households Program assistance, which now includes funeral assistance:
- Temporary tourist visa holders
- Foreign students
- Temporary work visa holders
- Habitual residents such as citizens of the Federated States of Micronesia, Palau, and the Republic of the Marshall Islands.
What if the death certificate doesn’t have COVID-19 as part of the cause of death?
Death certificate omissions have been a sticky situation for families who experienced a death before reliable testing became widely available, and amongst wide-spread accusations of facilities cooking their death records to reflect less COVID positive patients. FEMA recommends reaching out to the physician, medical examiner, or coroner who signed the certificate to see if they would be willing to amend the cause of death. If they are not willing to do so, which is honestly pretty likely. Ask them to provide a positive serology report, a testamentary letter, or other documents supporting a probable diagnosis of COVID-19 attributing to your loved one’s passing.
How much could I expect to be reimbursed?
$9,000 is the reimbursement cap per funeral and $35,500 per application, if you are seeking aid for multiple funerals. However, do not automatically count them forking over a solid nine grand. Any other sources of funding will be balanced against the aid awarded. This would include county or state burial assistance that was already received, social security, funeral/burial insurance, and veteran’s benefits. Weirdly enough, this does not include life insurance policies.
What if more than one person paid for the funeral, do we each submit an application?
No. There is just one application per death or household (in the case of multiple deaths). There is a main applicant and the others would be listed as co-applicants.
What if my claim is denied? Can I appeal?
Yes. You have 60 days from the date of the decision letter to upload, fax or mail a written and signed letter appealing FEMA’s decision. The following is lifted directly from FEMA’s website:
The appeal should include the following: • Appeal letter explaining why you think FEMA’s decision is not correct that must be signed by the applicant or a person who the applicant authorizes to act on his/her behalf. • The appeal letter should be accompanied by supporting documentation such as death certificate, funeral service bills, or other supporting documentation. • The appeal submission should include the following information: Applicant’s full name; FEMA application number and disaster number; and current phone number and address. • The application number must be included on each page of the appeal submitted. • Appeal documents may be submitted by: ◦ Upload through your DisasterAssistance.gov account. ◦ Fax to 855-261-3452. ◦ Mail to P.O. BOX 10001, Hyattsville, MD 20782 Please refer to the COVID-19 Funeral Assistance letter received for more information. Some decision letters do not require an appeal letter, so please read closely the specific letter you received identifying any documentation you must provide. You may also receive a call from FEMA providing further detail or you may choose to call FEMA if you need further clarification on the materials you need to provide.
Please check out FEMA’s funeral assistance FAQ page for additional scenarios and resources. I also recommend watching their informational video below. It may spark some questions you didn’t think to ask for when you have your application intake call!
If you are on the fence about applying for aid, do not wait too long! There currently is not a deadline in place for application submissions, but considering FEMA has never provided emergency funeral funding on this scale before, we can’t count on this opportunity to remain available in the long-term.