Erin Brohman · CBC News

It’s not always easy to think about one’s funeral, let alone sit down to plan and pay for it. Imagine learning, once it’s all said and done, that the money is gone.

That may be a reality for almost 50 people in Manitoba.

Wheeler Funeral Home, Cemetery and Crematorium went into court-ordered receivership on March 20, 2018, and is now being managed by chartered accounting firm Lazer Grant LLP.

Money and records are missing for at least 48 people who pre-paid for funeral services with Wheeler Funeral Home since 2012, which Lazer Grant says adds up to $121,000.

The funeral home is under investigation by Winnipeg police, as the receivership company clears up its books to prepare the business for resale.

If you’re looking to pre-pay for a funeral, here’s what you need to know:

1. Do a license check

The chair of the Funeral Board of Manitoba recommends asking to see the funeral director’s license.

“Ask the provider, ‘Do you have a license, and if you do, do you mind if I take a look?'” said Alena Lukes, chair of the Manitoba Funeral Board.

There are two main types of pre-paid funeral plans in Manitoba, both of which require licensure: insurance and trust accounts. Chad Wheeler, former funeral director of Wheeler Funeral Home, had been selling both without being licensed.

Insurance-based plans are provided by an insurance company, sold by a funeral director who must be licensed as a restricted insurance agent under the Insurance Act of Manitoba.

Licensing is done through Insurance Council of Manitoba, and current funeral directors licensed as a restricted insurance agents are found on their website at www.icm.mb.ca.

Trust-based plans can also be sold by a funeral director, but licensing is done by the Funeral Board of Manitoba under the Pre-Arranged Funeral Services Act, and involves deposits into trust accounts with the bank.

A list of currently licensed funeral homes in Manitoba that provide trust-based pre-paid services can be found here.

“Consumers don’t receive a copy of trust funding accounting, but that’s where the licensure piece is really important because there is the annual submission of accounts that’s submitted under the funeral review done of the trust funds,” said Lukes.

2. Do some research

Whether it’s a cremation, memorial service, or a burial, it’s important to have all the information available on the particular plan you choose, and ensure it meets your particular needs.

“I really believe the most important thing about prepaid services is to understand the type of plan that’s being purchased, to taking the time to read the details in the documentation,” said Lukes.

She said it’s crucial people understand what they’re paying for. And that takes some thought, and conversation, before sitting down with a funeral director.

“I tell people what’s more important than pre-paying is pre-planning and pre-arranging,” said Holly Fjeldsted, funeral director at Seasons Funeral Home.

“An added bonus is to have the funds.”

She said it’s “paramount” that people have a clear idea of what they want and share that with family, so that in the event of sudden death, the family isn’t left scrambling.

3. Take your time

Do some research on the types of plans available at the funeral home you choose.

“In funeral service there’s just so many gimmicks and so many games and so many things they do just to take money your of your pocket,” said Mike Vogiatzakis, funeral director at Voyage Funeral Home.

“Deal with a reputable funeral home, go as far as taking a tour of the facility, come and take a tour of the facility. If someone’s saying they’ll come to your house; there’s a lot of funeral directors that operate out of their vehicle; well, OK, that’s because you don’t have your own facility.”

Under the Pre-arranged Funeral Services Act of Manitoba, money held in trust can be withdrawn by the purchaser at any time, though if the cancellation occurs within three years of purchase, the funeral home is still entitled to up to 12% of the deposit for administrative costs.

Insurance plans can be cancelled at any time for a full refund. The money, which is in the person’s name, rather than a bank account owned by the funeral home, is easily transferable to other names or funeral homes.

“The insurance route is just easier on families, I find,” said Fjelsted.

4. Resist signing until ready

It is helpful to go to a funeral home with someone else for support before you buy.

“Avoid finalizing any agreement. If there’s anything not clear, or if there appears to be pressure to finalize the agreement, really take the time to understand the information,” said Lukes.

Funeral directors should provide documentation of the plan, which should then be stored in a safe place that your trusted loved ones know about.

“Keep the contract safe, refer to it and review it periodically just to make sure that it still meets that the individual’s plan, because sometimes the needs may change.”

5. Ask questions

Seek answers from funeral director if anything is unclear, but in the case of any concern or confusion, Lukes says any member of the public can call the Manitoba Funeral Board.

The board also hears and investigates complaints about funeral homes; to date, she said, none have been made about Wheeler Funeral Home.

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